Tunisia wraps up first-ever presidential debates as election day nears

Frontrunner Nabil Karoui, who is jailed on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, was notably absent from the event.
Tuesday 10/09/2019
Tunisia's presidential candidates Youssef Chahid (R) and Hamma Hammami attend the third round of the presidential debate, in Tunis, Tunisia, September 9. (dpa)
Tunisia's presidential candidates Youssef Chahid (R) and Hamma Hammami attend the third round of the presidential debate, in Tunis, Tunisia, September 9. (dpa)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s first-ever presidential debate series came to a close September 9 as candidates entered the final leg of a competitive campaign period for the country’s highest office.  

Twenty-four of Tunisia’s 26 presidential candidates participated in the nationally televised debates over three nights, presenting their case to voters who will head to the polls September 15 for the first round of voting.

Frontrunner Nabil Karoui, who is jailed on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, and businessman Slim Riahi, who chose to stay in Paris because he is wanted on charges of money laundering at home, were notably absent.

The event was hailed as a historic moment for Tunisia as it continues on its democratic transition, allowing citizens to hear directly from prospective leaders on their visions and platforms.

“Extensive work went into this ... and we’re very happy that we fully reached our goal of unifying the broadcast sphere in Tunisia,” said Belabbes Benkredda, founder of the pan-Arab debate initiative Munathara, which helped organise the event.

“We were able to create a single reality for Tunisian voters to make up their minds — to take them out of the information bubbles that have formed,” he added.

Analysts and observers agreed the debate was a step forward for Tunisia, but often criticised its limited format that provided little room for candidates to critically engage each other.

Benkredda acknowledged downsides to the format, but said compromises had to be made to get everybody on board.

“We are very happy that we did this, even though we made some compromises on our original vision in terms of format because we had to accomodate all of our partners,” he said.

Nearly 3 million Tunisians tuned in to the debates September 7, 8 and 9 that were carried on all major national television networks, as well as in Algerian, Libyan, Moroccan and pan-Arab outlets.

Still, many prospective voters remained undecided less than a week before the election, which will proceed to a run-off if no candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Wahib Chebbi, from Tunis, said he remained unsure of who to vote for because “no (candidate) has presented a full strategy proving they are capable of running the country, and we see the same faces that were there before the revolution with no serious economic agenda.”

"We've lost trust in almost every (leader) because of our past experiences with elections -- candidates have given us hope but then never followed through with their promises, only pursuing their own interests,” Chebi added.  

According to opinion polls conducted before the campaign period began September 2, Karoui led the field of contenders with up to 27% support, trailed next by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and constitutional law professor Kais Saied.

Ennahda candidate Abdelfattah Mourou and Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi both announced their candidacies at the last minute and were not included in the polling, but are also presumed to be frontrunners.

Each candidate who participated in the debates agreed to return for a second round of questions if they progressed to a run-off. For now, they are hard at the campaign trail in a last-ditch effort to reach voters.