FERNANA, Tunisia (Reuters) - As he watched a campaign bus pull into town plastered with slogans and posters for one of the 26 candidates for president, Mondher Jawad slapped his hands with fury while the woman next to him shouted abuse at the candidate’s staff.
“Democracy means nothing to us,” said Jawad, a 45-year-old with no job who has struggled to feed his three children in the dusty town of Fernana near the border with Algeria. “Will we eat or drink democracy?”
The birthplace of the “Arab Spring”, Tunisia is the only country to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy following the 2011 popular revolts that swept autocrats from power across North Africa and the Middle East.
But as the time comes to choose a successor to the first democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in office at 92 in July, many voters are in a dark mood, frustrated by the government’s failure to improve the quality of life.
There is still pride in democracy, and the country’s first televised presidential debates, spread over three successive nights this past week, were widely watched.
But turnout in elections for local government last year was only 34% and came on the heels of widespread protests over living standards. Politicians have warned that a failure to show real progress could jeopardize the democratic project itself.
Economic opportunities must improve “if Tunisia is to join the club of strong democracy,” Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, one of the presidential candidates, said in an interview with Reuters last month.
Tourism, a vital source of foreign currency, has only just recovered from militant attacks four years ago. Public spending has been cut sharply to tame the state finances, while economic growth has not risen fast enough to make a dent in unemployment.
Many state workers have gone on strike to demand more pay or better conditions, sometimes prompting counter protests. Outside a big post office shut by strikes in central Tunis last week, furious protesters tried to rip open the door to demand work resume so they could pick up pay cheques.
“I can’t even withdraw 50 dinars ($17),” said Sihem ben Salem, a woman crying outside the door. “The gangs, including politicians and unions, have taken over. They’re only ones to benefit from the revolution,” she added.
In the countryside, the political tumult of the capital seems remote. Further out from Fernana toward the Algerian border, the people of Oued al-Berber had hoped the revolution might bring them running water. Instead, they still have to walk an hour each day to reach the well by donkey.
“I remember the president died but I don’t know who’s president now. Nobody important comes here. Not before the revolution or afterwards,” said Noura Mechergui, 38, next to the wells where she and other villagers filled casks of water from the same concrete troughs where their animals drank.
Down the valley, in a homestead of five mud and stone buildings roofed with wicker and thatch, the three Ben Rabeh brothers and their families eek out a subsistence life far from the politics of the capital.
Each family sleeps, cooks and eats in a single room on a rough earthen floor under a bare lightbulb. The men are unemployed and spend their days hauling water from the spring and tending to their vegetable patch. There is no money for schoolbooks for the children.
Still, Ahmed Ben Rabeh, 49, a father of four, said he was considering voting. He would ask somebody in a nearby village who to vote for, he said.
“When I watch television sometimes, I understand that politicians do not talk about people like us,” he said.
Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tarek Amara; Editing by Peter Graff