A Tunis court has overruled the appeal of imprisoned presidential candidate, TV boss Nabil Karoui, meaning that he will likely remain in detention throughout the remaining campaigning period.
Tunisia votes in its legislative elections on Sunday, with the second round of the presidential vote between Mr Karoui and the independent Kais Saied scheduled for October 13.
As news of the court decision came in, much of the air seemed to leave the offices of Mr Karoui’s party, Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia), with staffers realising that they would now have to fight two elections with their candidate in prison, awaiting trial on 2016 allegations of tax evasion and money laundering following his arrest on August 23.
Speaking shortly before the court's ruling, Samir Achour, a senior member of Qalb Tounes' political bureau told The National that any ruling that kept the presidential candidate in prison would undermine the validity of the election result. "Of course, that wouldn't be a fair vote, " he said, adding "there's every possibility that we would contest that (outcome)."
Responding to questions submitted to his lawyer by Arab Weekly, which have a Tunis office, Mr Karoui told the newspaper: "I wasn't given the chance to communicate my programme and I was prevented from doing it by a court order, the timing of which was suspicious. It simply amounts to muzzling me and forbidding me to interact with voters."
For the Qalb Tounes team in the capital, the public absence of Mr Karoui has hurt his campaign. While conceding that a limited number of people would have voted for Mr Karoui simply as a result of what they saw as the injustice of his situation, the party’s experience in the field, allied to the relatively low turnout of the election (45.02 per cent) ,Mr Achour suggested: “there was a huge campaign to discourage people from voting for Nabil because he was in jail. So these guys didn’t go and vote for someone else, they just didn’t vote.”
Both Professor Saied and Mr Karoui entered the presidential race as outsiders, campaigning on popular platforms that, though wildly different in approach, focused very much upon the country’s poor and overlooked population.
As the results of the first ballot came in, that strategy appeared to have paid dividends, with ¨Professor Saied reaping 18.4 per cent of the vote and Mr Karoui placing second with 15.58 per cent ahead of a field dominated by many of the big beasts of Tunisian politics. Among those competing against Mr Karoui and Professor Saied were Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the candidate of the country’s dominant post 2011 party, Abdelfattah Mourou of the moderate Islamist, Ennahda movement.
For Tunisia, frequently lauded as the lighthouse of the Arab uprisings, any dispute over the legitimacy of what have otherwise observed to have been free and fair elections would cut to the very heart of its democratic transition. For many within the Karoui campaign there is no constitutional mechanism to allow for what are undeniably unique circumstances and no precedent available by which to seek guidance. Moreover, the Constitutional Court, which would typically rule in such a situation, remains unformed, raising the possibility of a divided public vote whose legitimacy was open to question.
With gossip of private polling suggesting that Professor Saied has already established a solid lead over Mr Karoui ahead of the October runoff, it is probable that both Mr Karoui’s current imprisonment, as well as what his supporters claim was a campaign of official harassment in the build up to the September vote, may be revisited.
Moreover, though those rumoured polls have yet to be tested, they also suggest that Qalb Tounes is due convincing win on Sunday. Under Tunisia's parliamentary rules, the majority party is eligible to nominate its own candidate for Head of Government, (prime minister) suggesting that this dramatic story may be a long way from over.