Monastir, Tunisia – On a recent evening in this coastal town, a few people gathered around a television screen in Café Arabesque to watch the first of three televised debates between presidential candidates ahead of this Sunday’s election.
It was the first such debate in the country’s history, but at an outside table, 27-year-old Wassim Zahra was drinking coffee with friends and paying no attention to the screen.
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“The politicians are talking too much on TV, but in reality they don’t do anything,” said Zahra, who recently started working as an accountant. “I searched for years before finding work. Everything is expensive. With my salary, all I can buy is a pair of shoes and a T-shirt.”
His remarks have been echoed by many young people around the country who are frustrated by the lack of gains since Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 and have lost trust in the political class.
Prices in Tunisia have rocketed and unemployment remains stubbornly at 15 percent, higher than pre-revolution levels. Young people have been the hardest hit by the lack of jobs, with youth unemployment at 33 percent nationally and surpassing 50 percent in some regions.
Sunday’s vote is the country’s second free presidential election since the revolution and the political field is crowded and unpredictable. There are 26 candidates in the race and no clear frontrunner, making each individual vote potentially more valuable.
Among the leading candidates are Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui, and Abdelfattah Mourou, the first presidential candidate put forward by the Islamist party Ennahda.
Composing 60 percent of the overall population, young people account for a significant and diverse voter bloc, but recent trends suggest young people will be underrepresented at the ballot box. Fewer than 20 percent of people aged 18 – 35 voted in the 2014 parliamentary elections and in 2017, 69 percent of young people said that they did not trust political parties.
“We will see lower youth turnout than for older people [as in other years], but the difference is that this year the field is quite varied,” said Sarah Yerkes, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s not just two old people, there are more options.”
Three nights of debate
There are so many options that the TV debate had to take place over three nights. On the first night, a photo showing a group of young people gathered outside a cafe in the centre of the capital, Tunis, to watch the event on a big screen went viral.
“This isn’t a football match!” Farouk Souissi, a 32-year-old sound engineer, wrote on Facebook. He said he took and shared the photo on social media to point out that young people were interested in the elections.
“It’s a proud moment,” he told Al Jazeera. “For me, I am more interested now because I have a general idea about all the candidates, [like] what they think about the economy and environment.”
About three million Tunisians – nearly half the total number of registered voters – tuned in on Saturday night alone, according to polling agency Sigma Conseil. But some viewers said they were put off by the debate. “In the end, [Mongi] Rahoui disappointed me, so I think I’m going to put in a blank vote or abstain,” Habiba Rahali, a 26-year-old history of art student in Tunis, wrote on Facebook after watching the second debate with friends at home.
“I’m very confused, I don’t see who to vote for. None of them represent me and I don’t appreciate the arguments put forward by the candidates,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that she was happy that the debates took place and would probably vote on Sunday.
Yerkes said the candidates had failed to differentiate themselves from one another and lacked clear political platforms.
“It is really difficult for any voter, let alone young people, to understand the differences,” she said. “Seeing the candidates in action, seeing them have to defend themselves will help [but] you still have to bring the people out and make them think it is worth their time to vote.”
Shiraz, 27, runs the local bureau of a political party in Sidi Bouzid, the central Tunisian town where the fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 and kickstarted the revolution. Despite her day job, she feels that the candidates are “all the same”. She even says that her party’s candidate is “the worst,” but this is the only work she has been able to find since finishing her high school education.
“I’m not interested because they are liars and they have done nothing. All of the country has gone downhill – terrorism, people are unemployed,” she said, sitting beside a fountain on the town’s main high street.
‘There is no justice’
Down the road in Cafe Mon Plaisir, high-school student Montassar Hamdi, 18, says he has not registered, despite this being the first election in which he is able to vote. “There is no justice, there is still racism against my region,” he said, adding that he wants to find a “contract in France or somewhere else abroad” after his studies.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo does not always lead to abstention. Nacer Gharbi, a 31-year-old wheat farmer in Sidi Bouzid, says he plans to vote for Kais Said, a constitutional lawyer, because he is “outside of the system”.
“[Said] has no accusation of corruption and we have tried with this government but we did not succeed,” he told Al Jazeera. “There is corruption, nepotism and they are destroying the agriculture sector – this year, we had a record harvest but 60 percent of it was lost” due to a lack of stock and storage management.
The farming sector is an essential component of the national economy, contributing 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and employing almost one quarter of working Tunisians.
“Young people not participating in political life is a global problem. We have come a long way since the revolution,” said Nesrine Laamari, the youngest member of parliament at age 29, adding that “young people need to be in decision-making positions” to improve trust in the political class.
Abdelkoudous Saddaoui, secretary of state in charge of youth, says that a low turnout does not mean that young people are apolitical. “They are still involved – 52 percent of the candidates in the  municipal elections were young people [below 35] and they lead civil society associations,” he said.
After three days of back-to-back debate-watching at her house with friends, Rahali says she wants to watch them again. “Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow I’ll need to rewatch them alone, with a lot of concentration,” she said. “Then I’ll vote by elimination.”