Tunisia’s first-ever presidential debate falls short of expectations

Still, many hailed the event as an important moment in the country’s democratic transition.
Sunday 08/09/2019
This TV grab  from Ettounsiya TV shows (L to R) Tunisian candidates, former Justice Minister Amor Mansour, former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, Nidaa Tounes' Neji Jelloul and UGTT's Abid Brigui attending a presidential debate on September 7. (AFP)
This TV grab from Ettounsiya TV shows (L to R) Tunisian candidates, former Justice Minister Amor Mansour, former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, Nidaa Tounes' Neji Jelloul and UGTT's Abid Brigui attending a presidential debate on September 7. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisians tuned in to the country’s first-ever, nationally televised presidential debate on September 7, but many were disappointed with the event’s limited format and the absence of a popular frontrunner.

Eight of Tunisia’s 26 presidential contenders took part in the first of three debates, which are produced by Tunisian national television and co-organised by Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) and the Washington-based NGO Munathara.

Presidential frontrunner Nabil Karoui, who owns the Nessma TV channel and heads the new “Qalb Tounes” party, was slated to be the ninth participant but was unable to take part as he remained in jail on charges of tax evasion and money laundering. An appeals court rejected Karoui’s plea to be released earlier this week.

In a statement on Twitter, Karoui wrote: "Tonight I am deprived of my constitutional right to express myself in front of the Tunisian people."

"They dare to speak of democratic and transparent elections despite the absence of the basic principle of equal opportunities,” he added.

Slim Riahi, a candidate who has chosen to stay in Paris during the campaign since he is also wanted on charges of money laundering, will be unable to take part in the third and final TV debate September 9. 

He has filed an emergency petition with the courts seeking permission to participate in the debate remotely.

The first debate had been eagerly anticipated by Tunisians as a way to test the waters in the crowded race that many analysts say is too close to call, but strict rules against “provocative” statements meant candidates had little room to challenge each other.

"The lack of spirited exchanges led to an unattractive debate that did not serve the candidates," said former minister Mabrouk Korchid in a Facebook post.

However, many still hailed the event as an important moment in the country’s democratic transition that allowed candidates to speak directly to voters about their platforms. 

"It's unprecedented! As a Tunisian journalist, I am proud and impatient to see this," said Monia Dhouib, a member of the organising committee.

“The election debate is one of our proudest moments in the last eight years,” commented presidential media advisor Firas Gafrech on social media.

Gauging who won the debates a week before the September 15 election will be guesswork from pundits, as opinion polls are barred from being published during the campaign period.  

Guafrech ventured that "two candidates, a man and a woman” had been “above the fray.”

"They will have a lot to offer either at the helm of the presidency or as part of the next government," he added.

The only woman contender on the debate stage Spetember 7 was Abir Moussi, an outspoken critic of Islamism who heads the Free Destourian Party (PDL).

Gafrech did not specify which male candidate he believed had performed best.

Contrary to expectations, there was no face to face exchange between Moussi and  Abdelfattah Mourou, a candidate of the Islamist Ennahda party.

Dressed in a traditional pink jebba, Mourou spoke in classical Arabic without once addressing Moussi, who stood beside him.

The PDL candidate reiterated her party's opposition to merging religion with politics and pledged to shed light on the 2013 assassination of two leftist leaders.

Also present at the first debate were former President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki and former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. Both defended their records on matters of national security, diplomacy and public and individual freedoms -- the three main topics of the night.

Jomaa and independent candidate Neji Jelloul defended the army against insinuations of "coup designs" that could disrupt the democratic process.

They were indirectly disavowing recent statements by Defence Minister and independent candidate Abdelkarim Zbidi that the the army had been prepared to act militarily to prevent a "legislative coup" a few months ago.

Zbidi said in a recent TV interview that he had considered using the army to to block access to parliament on June 27 to prevent some MPs from prematurely declaring a vacancy at the helm of the state based on the president's and speaker of parliament's illnesses. 

All candidates pledged to continue the fight against terrorism and ensure stability.

Former President Marzouki defended his past efforts to “reach out to Salafist scholars” to help counter extremism.

He also pledged to continue fighting corruption if elected. “We will clear the country of the corrupt in the economy, media and politics,” he said, without elaborating.

The remaining presidential candidates will appear in televised debates tonight and Monday, September 8 and 9.