Polls open in decisive Tunisian presidential election round

Tunisians are choosing between media mogul Nabil Karoui and independent retired law professor Kais Saied

A woman casts her vote at a polling station during a second round runoff of a presidential election in Tunis. Reuters
A woman casts her vote at a polling station during a second round runoff of a presidential election in Tunis. Reuters

Polls opened across Tunisia on Sunday morning as the country turned out to decide between a socially awkward academic or a recently-jailed businessman to assume the office of President, the country’s highest elected position.

The two candidates, constitutional law professor Professor Kais Saied from Tunis and TV boss Nabil Karoui originally from the northern port city of Bizerte, promise radical solutions to a society plagued by joblessness, a spiralling cost of living and the ever-dwindling value of its currency.

Both Mr Karoui and Mr Saied emerged victorious from a field of 26 candidates during the first round of voting on September 15. In the final tally Mr Saied gained 18.40 per cent, with Mr Karoui finishing second with 15.58 per cent of the vote, despite campaigning from prison. Before his release on Wednesday, he had been held since August on 2016 charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

Turnout as of 11.45am was at 17.8 per cent, higher than at the same point in both the first round of presidential elections and the legislative vote.

Standing outside the polling station in the working class district of Passage, 60-year-old Habiba Riahi had voted for Mr Karoui, who she had supported from the onset.

“He has the business experience to help the economy, she said. “I worry about the allegations against him a little bit, but he’s the only one who came to visit the poor.”

Bakery worker, Abdul Monem, 45, originally supported Abdelfattah Mourou, the former presidential candidate for Ennahda. However, on Sunday, he had just cast his ballot for Mr Saied. “I voted for Saied because he is not corrupt,” he told The National.

During the first round of the presidential vote only 49 per cent of the country went to the polls, compared to approximately 63 per cent during the first round of the 2014 presidential elections. Likewise, during the 6th October legislative elections, where moderate Islamists Ennahda secured a plurality, turnout was only 41 per cent compared to around 68 per cent in 2014.

Both candidates are generally perceived as political outsiders. However, this is only partly the case. Mr Saied played a pivotal role in drafting the 2014 constitution following Tunisia's 2011 Jasmine Revolution which overthrew president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He has since become a well-known commentator on political matters, with his awkward mannerisms and use of formal Arabic earning him the nickname The Robot.

Mr Karoui has long been a fixture on the political scene. His TV chain, Nessma, was understood to be close to Tunisia’s former autocrat Mr Ben Ali. In more recent years, he was among the founders of deceased President, Beji Caid Essebsi’s political party, Nidaa Tounes, (Call of Tunisia) before leaving in 2017 following a dispute with the President’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi.

He has since returned to politics, positioning himself as a champion of Tunisia’s poor and founding his own party, Qalb Tounes, (Heart of Tunisia) in June of this year. Despite his legal difficulties, his success has been dramatic, with Qalb Tounes finishing second in the country’s legislative elections, potentially setting them up for parliamentary conflict with Ennahda, who Mr Karoui appears to hold responsible for many of his recent legal troubles.

Mr Saied has overseen a relatively low key campaign ahead of today’s vote, going so far in early October as to suspend campaigning entirely in order to ensure an equal playing field while Mr Karoui remained in prison. In contrast, Mr Karoui’s campaign has maintained a frenetic pace since his provisional release from prison as the candidate worked tirelessly to recover lost ground.

During a much anticipated television debate between the two candidates on Friday, Mr Karoui appeared to struggle with the interviewers’ questions over allegations of past corruption, as well as his alleged contract with Canadian lobbying company, Dickens and Madson, an enterprise operated by Tehran-born businessman and former adviser to Israel’s military intelligence, Ari Ben-Menashe.

However, despite the numerous allegations against him, Mr Karoui’s bedrock of support has remained relatively constant. Whether it will withstand the popular campaign of Mr Saied remains to be seen.

Updated: October 13, 2019 09:18 PM


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