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Tunisia Chooses – Historic Presidential Debates Set the Tone for Sunday’s Election

Until last weekend, the World Cup was the only event that I could rely on seeing on every TV in every café in Tunis. But for three nights over this past weekend, soccer took a rare back seat to a whole different kind of competition: the first televised presidential debates in Tunisian history.

Billed as “The Road to Carthage,” the debates were classic political entertainment, and appointment viewing for seemingly the entire country. Driving across town to meet some friends for a watch party, TV sets in every single café we passed were tuned to the debate. Over that first night and the course of the next two, candidates stood before the nation and made their case to be the next president of the republic.

For someone living in Tunisia, as I have for the past four years, it is easy to underappreciate how much has changed since a historic uprising in 2011 ended decades of dictatorship and put this country on the path to democratic governance. Watching the debates and following the lively discussion of the candidates’ performances, not least the comments on social media from onlookers throughout the rest of the Arab world, I was reminded again of the momentous changes that have made this moment possible.

Twenty-six candidates will be on the ballot this Sunday for Tunisia’s presidential elections. With the official campaign period lasting only 11 days, voters were eager to hear the candidates introduce themselves and advocate for their ideas. The debates did just that – lasting for three nights and clocking in at just over nine hours of runtime, viewers were treated to a lengthy look at each candidate, many of them for the first time. In Tunisia, where candidate public appearances are often brief, highly scripted, and surrounded by a crowd of friendly supporters, the debates were a rare opportunity to compare candidates side by side. People I spoke with talked about how this was their best chance to evaluate how well the candidates speak, how well they can persuade a neutral audience and how well they can present themselves as a leader of the nation.

When it comes to politics, pessimism is the overwhelming sentiment in Tunisia. Regardless of their political affiliations, most Tunisians believe that the current government and the political opposition have failed to perform. To put it bluntly, people do not trust politicians to represent their interests. So, I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic reception for the presidential debates.

Under the new constitution, Tunisia’s President is responsible for national security, defense, and foreign policy, while the Prime Minister handles domestic affairs. This relatively limited role differs considerably from the historical legacy of the Presidency, which is one of strongmen dominating all affairs of state. While public perceptions are still adjusting to the new constitutional reality, the debates served as an opportunity to educate voters on the precise role of the Presidency and the limitations on its power. Each candidate responded to a comprehensive set of questions that covered each area of the President’s role in government.

Anyone watching to see candidates match wits may have been disappointed – the debate format afforded few opportunities for candidates to engage with each other. Often, the questions were vague enough to allow the kind of platitudes and meandering that plague debate audiences everywhere. Many of the people I’ve spoken with remarked that the debates did not help them make a decision about who to vote for.

Another issue – albeit one entirely outside the control of the debate organizers – was the conspicuous absence of two candidates. Nabil Karoui, the proprietor of Tunisia’s most-watched TV station Nessma TV and leader in most opinion polls, is currently being held in detention on charges of tax evasion and money laundering. The other absentee, Slim Riahi, is running his campaign from Paris, avoiding a warrant for arrest on corruption charges of his own. Considering his current situation and his popularity, there is significant public demand to hear Karoui speak, even though that is not possible due to legal proceedings.

Nevertheless, the presidential debates have gripped the public’s attention. Viewers tuned in to watch candidates work to win their votes. Listening to the candidates court voters, each making an appeal for support, was an important indication that in Tunisia, the citizens decide who gets to govern. While it is too early to make any judgment on how the debates will impact elections, this is what I will remember as the signature achievement for these debates: their re-orientation of the relationship between citizens and political leaders.

As an American, I was raised to believe that government serves the public and leaders serve at the pleasure of the voters. In Tunisia, and many other countries around the world, this view would be considered upside-down. People here often believe that authority rests with the government, and it is the citizens’ role to follow it. In Tunisian Arabic, any representative of the state from a neighborhood police officer to a cabinet minister is known as al hakim, “the ruler.” But on the debate stage, presidential hopefuls had to convince citizens to support them. As the program title stated, “Tunisia Chooses.” That is an occasion for all Tunisians, and supporters of democracy the world over, to celebrate.