More Televised Debates Planned for Legislative, Presidential Elections

A panel including representatives from Tunisian National Television, ISIE, and Munathara present details on the next election debates at Hotel Africa in Tunis on Wednesday, September 25, 2019. Photo by George Gale

Tunisia’s state broadcaster, Tunisian National Television, along with international non-profit organization Munathara, are planning to hold two televised debates in the lead up to the October 6 legislative elections.

The groups made the announcement at a press conference on Wednesday, September 25 at a high profile event at Hotel Africa.

“The electoral debates are one of the most important elements in the democratic process because they contribute to enlightening voters’ choices, making candidates accountable to their people and establishing a culture of debate in Tunisia,” reads a press release distributed at the conference by Munathara and Tunisian National Television.

Munathara is an organization with offices in Washington D.C., Amman, and Tunis that aims to promote debate. The group had proposed holding the debates and made the case for the importance of such debates to the High Independent Election Body (ISIE by its French acronym) in October 2018. The group has also worked to make sure that the debates are widely available by allowing any network to broadcast the debates so long as they agree to broadcast them in full. This current project has been supported financially by the German and Swiss foreign ministries.

Mohamed Lassaad Dahech, CEO Tunisian National Television, said at the Wednesday conference that the debates, entitled “Road to Bardo: Tunisia Decides,” will take place on October 1 and October 2. However Belabbes Benkredda, founder of the Munathara Initiative, indicated to Meshkal on Thursday afternoon in a phone interview that there will now be three debates instead of two.

A spokesperson for ISIE, Hasna Ben Slimane, was present at the Wednesday press conference but clarified that ISIE’s role in the debates is relegated to making sure that candidates are afforded equal time.

However, absolutely equal time during the debates will be impossible, as unlike in the first presidential debates, the vast number of candidates running for parliament compelled organizers to use a different format. Each debate will feature only nine electoral lists out of the more than 1500 that are standing for election. These nine will be selected at random by organizers through a lottery system but with a view to giving equal representation to different regions.

“The idea here is to give a general overview, a macro view of the party lists, independent lists, and coalition lists,” Dahech said.

There are over 15,000 candidates in over 1500 lists running in the legislative elections. This is due to a party list system that puts forward as many candidates as there are seats in the electoral district. For example, any party or independent candidate wishing to run in the electoral district of Tunis 1 must put forward a total of nine candidates for each of the nine seats in the electoral district of Tunis 1, to account for the extremely rare chance that a party receives 100 percent of the votes and must fill each of the nine seats. ISIE has approved 49 lists— including both party and independent lists—running for the district of Tunis 1, competing for the district’s nine seats in parliament. 49 lists with nine candidates each means there are 441 candidates running in that electoral district alone.

The televised presidential debates for the first round of the presidential elections, was the first time Tunisia held such debates. Those debates attracted 3.5 to 4 million viewers according to Dahech, more than half of Tunisia’s 7 million registered voters.

Dahech said that the second round of the presidential debates will also feature two debates between candidates Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui.

The first presidential debate will focus on national security and the second on foreign relations, according to Dahech.

Karoui is still in prison on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, however both representatives from ISIE and from national television said they are in contact with the judiciary and have requested the courts to allow Karoui to take part in the debates, either from prison via a live feed or on stage on a temporary release. There had been rumors that Karoui might be released on Wednesday September 25, however he remains in prison as this story went to publication.

Ben Slimane of ISIE reiterated that this it is in the interest of defending the constitution to allow Karoui to participate in the debate, noting the constitution “doesn’t prevent a detained person from exercising their civil and political rights.”

The Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH by its French acronym) has called for Karoui to be released from prison to freely run his election campaign.

Dahech said that the presidential elections are expected to be held on October 13th, however ISIE has yet to issue an official announcement confirming this date.

“I’m sure election debates will become an institution in Tunisian politics.” said Belabbes Benkredda, founder of the Munathara Initiative.