By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – Eight presidential candidates stood behind their podiums aiming to impress Tunisian voters on Saturday evening in the young democracy’s first ever televised election debate.
Although Tunisia has held elections twice since throwing off autocratic rule in the 2011 revolution which triggered the “Arab Spring” uprisings, democracy is still taking root and such direct questioning of all the candidates is a novelty.
Only a few patrons of the Essafsaf Cafe in Tunis were watching the large screen in the corner, however, hoping to whittle down their voting preferences ahead of the Sept. 15 election.
“I have a list of favorites and I have a few who are not favorites. I hope to learn how they react to questions, how they face questions they do not know in advance,” said Mohamed Mazhoud, 31, a software developer.
He had come to the cafe with his brother Ali, 25, and three friends, planning to listen to each of the candidates scheduled for the first night of debate, with most of the other 18 appearing on Sunday or Monday.
Saturday’s batch included Abdelfattah Mourou, who is the first presidential candidate put forward by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, former prime minister Mehdi Jomaa and former president Moncef Marzouki.
Mourou was placed next to Abir Moussi, one of two women in the race and a supporter of the ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, whose government banned Ennahda and jailed many of its members.
Another very prominent candidate, media magnate Nabil Karoui, is in detention on suspicion of tax fraud and money laundering, charges he denies and attributes to political chicanery. Debate organizers have said they will keep an empty podium place on the night he was scheduled to appear.
The furor surrounding his detention is not the only challenge facing Tunisian democracy during this election – years of economic troubles have also undermined trust in politics and turnout for municipal voting last year barely reached 30%.
The government has spent the past three years trying to push through tough spending cuts to curb the large level of public debt and to bolster security after Islamist militant attacks in 2015 that devastated the crucial tourism sector.
Unemployment, at 12% before the revolution, now stands at 15% nationally and more than 30% in some cities.
“DEMOCRACY IS FOR THE RICH”
Around Tunis on Saturday evening, most cafe televisions seemed set to a football match between France and Albania, though politically engaged people may have chosen to watch at home where they could better hear the candidates.
Outside the Cafe Les Palmiers, groups of men sat playing cards or smoking. At one table of four, Rida Ben Salem, 53, said he had lost any belief that the elections would change his difficult lot in life.
“I don’t care about the debate and I don’t want to watch it,” he said. He makes 400 Tunisian dinars ($140) a month selling prickly cactus fruit from a wooden barrow he pushes round the streets by hand.
“I don’t need this democracy. Democracy is for the rich, not for the poor like us,” he added.
Still, he said that with elections coming the police would lay off street vendors like him, only cracking down on them again after the polls.
It was the self-immolation of a street vendor whose barrow was confiscated by police that sparked the revolution.
In a downtown cafe where dozens of people were watching the debate on a large screen on the pavement, engineer Saidan Abdelsettar said he was definitely planning to vote, but had not yet chosen a candidate.
“Until now I can’t say one candidate stands out. But the debates help because it gives me an idea of how they present themselves,” he said.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)