Tunisia: Saied, Karoui advance to runoff after topping polls

Law professor Saied, imprisoned media mogul Karoui were seen as outsiders before the polls.

Tunisia election
The commission's announcement confirmed exit polls released on Sunday evening and partial results issued throughout Monday [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Independent candidate Kais Saied and imprisoned media mogul Nabil Karoui have advanced to a runoff after obtaining the most votes in Tunisia’s September 15 presidential election.

The official announcement by the country’s electoral commission on Tuesday confirmed constitutional law professor Saied won 18.4 percent of the vote while Karoui, owner of popular television station Nessma TV, garnered 15.6 percent.

Ennahdha’s Abdelfattah Mourou came in third with 12.9 percent.

Both front runners – though very different – were seen as outsiders, drawing “anti-system” votes from an electorate disillusioned with the status quo.

Mistrust of the political establishment runs high in Tunisia, where unemployment is at 15 percent and the cost of living has risen by almost a third since 2016.

Saied, a fiercely independent academic, advocates radical decentralisation of power, with local democracy and the ability to remove elected officials from office during their mandates.

In a leafy courtyard of the law faculty in Tunis, a group of students celebrated their former professor Saied’s progress.

“Saied deserves it. I trust him, he is not just looking to seize power,” Yassine Ben Ghassem, a 23-year-old student who has been informally campaigning for Saied in his home town Sousse, told Al Jazeera.

“He has always taught youth at university so he understands us.”

But 18-year-old Mahdi Naghatti, a first year law student who was never taught by Saied, was not too sure.

“I feel so-so [about the result]. They say he is intellectual but who is he? Is he [secretly] part of Ennahdha? He said he is not supported by any party but I don’t know what his plans are,” Naghatti, who voted for defence minister Abdelkrim Zbidi, said.

Karoui, who built his appeal on high-profile charity campaigns, is under investigation for alleged money laundering and has been in pre-trial detention since August 23.

He denies all wrongdoing and his supporters attribute his arrest to political manipulation.

He was unable to take part in televised debates before the vote and electoral monitors have voiced concern that voters have been deprived of a chance to hear him campaign.

‘Disillusionment with the existing political system’

Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Tunis, said the vote amounts to a complete rejection of established parties that have dominated Tunisian politics since 2011.

“They’ve chosen a previously unknown professor of constitutional law. People only came to know him following the revolution when he appeared on talk shows and helped the public decipher the new constitution,” she said,

“You then have Karoui who has been part of the political establishment but recently got out of the main party, the late President Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes, and used his media to highlight his charity work.”

Depending on potential appeals, the second round could be organised for October 6, the same day as legislative elections, or on October 13, the electoral commission said.

“[There is] a disillusionment with the existing political system based on parties,” Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst, said.

“We can understand it from the rise of independents and the low level of support that historical members of the opposition get. The disillusionment is not [just] with the ruling, it is with the institutions and the individuals.”

After the results were released, Mohamed Saidane, a member of Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounes party, admitted the message was clear: People wanted someone from outside the system.

“[This result] could push people to vote anti-system in the legislatives, there will be lots of independents and we may not be able to constitute a government,” Saidane said.

Additional reporting by Layli Foroudi in Tunis 

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Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies