Tunisia airs first 'great debate' ahead of presidential poll

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Tunisian people watch the Presidential TV debate in a cafe on Saturday in Tunis. -AFP

TUNIS — Days before the first round of Tunisia's presidential election, the fledgling democracy on Saturday began three nights of televised debates between the candidates.

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

The North African nation has been praised as a rare success story for democratic transition after the Arab Spring regional uprisings sparked by its 2011 revolution.

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

"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 organize the event.

The first hour-and-a-half debate on Saturday night involved eight of the candidates.

The stage, at the studios of public TV channel Wataniya, placed candidates in a semi-circle with two journalist moderators at the center.

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.

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.

Beyond the organizational and technical elements, organizers highlighted the rare nature of the event.

"Often in the Arab world, when we speak of competition we know who wins at the end, with 99.99 percent. Today, we don't know who is going to win", said Lassad Khedder, head of a private TV channel syndicate in Tunisia.

"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. -AFP


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