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Tunisians watch first 'great debate' ahead of presidential election

Tunisians gathered in cafes, their eyes riveted to TV screens, as if they were following an important football match
Tunisians watch presidential TV debate in cafe on Saturday night in Tunis (AFP)

Days before the first round of Tunisia's presidential election, the fledgeling democracy began three nights of televised debates among the candidates, a rare event in the Arab world.

The showdown of the 26 hopefuls is seen as the highlight of the campaign and a turning point in Tunisian politics ahead of the 15 September vote.

Although Tunisia has held elections twice since throwing off autocratic rule in the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring uprisings, democracy is still taking root and such direct questioning of all the candidates is a novelty, Reuters said.

Called "The road to Carthage: Tunisia makes its choice", the programme was broadcast on 11 TV channels, two of them public, and about 20 radio stations, AFP said.

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"We won't be able to escape it," said a smiling Belabbes Benkredda, founder of the Munathara Initiative, which promotes open debate in the Arab world and helped organise the event.

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He said "the culture of debate doesn't yet have a place in the Arab world".

Still, he noted that the Tunisian debates will be broadcast by channels in Iraq, Algeria and Libya. The hope is, he said, that this "first step will serve as inspiration" for other Arab countries.

The first hour-and-a-half debate on Saturday night involved eight of the candidates, including Abdelfattah Mourou of the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party, and passionate secularist Abir Moussi, head of a group with roots in the party of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

There was also an empty space for the controversial media mogul Nabil Karoui, currently detained on money-laundering charges.

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

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

The furore surrounding his detention is not the only challenge facing Tunisian democracy during this election - years of economic troubles have also undermined trust in politics as the turnout for municipal voting last year barely reached 30 percent.

The government has spent the past three years trying to push through tough spending cuts to curb high public debt and to bolster security after attacks by gunmen in 2015 that devastated the crucial tourism sector.

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Unemployment, at 12 percent before the revolution, now stands at 15 percent nationally and more than 30 percent in some cities.

The stage, at the studios of public TV channel Wataniya, placed candidates in a semi-circle with two journalist moderators at the centre. The questions were set by the journalists and randomly selected and allocated to candidates on Friday.

Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond to a question and could be asked a follow-up question or interrupted. At the end of the show, candidates were given 99 seconds to outline their manifestos and campaign promises.

Tunisians gathered in cafes to watch the debates, their eyes riveted to TV screens as if they were following an important football match.

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 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.

Oussama, 33, said the debate had been "cold and devoid of clashes", although it had at least allowed him to cross some hopefuls off his list.

"But we're proud because all Arabs everywhere were watching us this evening," he said.

"Tunisian voters haven't yet decided," said political analyst Ziyed Krichen.

Thousands of votes one way or the other "could radically change" the country, he added.

Many Tunisians say they are counting on the debates to help them make their decision.

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