A lawyer and a media mogul claim victory in Tunisia’s presidential election

  • 16 Sep 2019

Kais Saied, a law professor, and Nabil Karoui, a media mogul, will face off in the October runoff election according to an exit poll by Sigma Conseil.

A woman casts her vote in a polling station during presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, September 15, 2019. ( Muhammad Hamed / Reuters )

Tunisian voters went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president after the death of late president Beji Caid Essebsi at the age of 92 in July. 

There were 24 candidates after two withdrew at the last minute and according to exit polls, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of the Long Live Tunisia party did not seem to qualify for the runoff. Neither did Abdelfattah Mourou from the Ennahda party.

Essebsi, Tunisia’s first democratically elected president, came to power after the Tunisian Revolution, which was the culmination of months of protests against former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

On Sunday, about 45 percent of seven million eligible voters showed up to vote, according to the Associated Press.

In order to win Tunisia’s presidential election, a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the votes – a scenario that in this case analysts don’t see as being very likely. With all candidates probably falling under the 50% minimum, a runoff election with the top two candidates seems to be on the cards.

Two of the candidates are already claiming they will make it to the second round in October ahead of the results of the election on September 15. They are Kais Saied, a law professor, and Nabil Karoui, a media mogul that has been detained due to a money laundering and tax evasion investigation.

Presidential candidate Kais Saied stands next to a Tunisian flag after unofficial results during the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, September 15, 2019.(Reuters)

Kais Saied: the scholar

While official results will not be announced until Tuesday, according to projections by the polling firm Sigma Conseil, Kais Saied is leading the race.

Saied is a 61-year-old law professor and an expert on constitutional affairs. He seems to have received 19.5 percent of the votes. He is not affiliated with any party and is running as an independent candidate.

“My win brings a big responsibility to change frustration to hope … it is a new step in Tunisian history … it is like a new revolution,” Saied told a Tunisian radio station on Sunday, Anadolu Agency reported.

Saied and also Karoui have both pledged to fight unemployment, a major problem in Tunisia, which suffers from high unemployment.

AP reports that Saied has no political background but that his straightforward, anti-system image and constitutional law background appealed to young voters. Many voters are sick and tired of corruption in the government, which may explain the attraction of an independent candidate with no previous ties to any established parties.

Tarek Kahlaoui, an expert on Tunisian politics and security issues writing for the Washington Post  contrasts Saied’s approach with Karoui’s: noting that Saied has no money or party, the law professor has marched in the streets, talked to people without meetings and shown up on media in a remarkably limited manner. The Washington Post notes that Saied’s campaign is based on “his absence from the public eye – other than his social media presence.”

Salwa Smaoui, the wife of Tunisia's jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui (picture), awaits the voting results in the Tunisian capital Tunis on September 15, 2019. Tunisian voters turned out on Sunday to choose from a crowded field of candidates after a divisive campaign in the country's second free presidential poll since the 2011 Yasmine Revolution.(AFP)

Nabil Karoui: the mogul

Karoui is expected to place second after Saied according to Sigma Conseil’s exit poll, with 15.5 percent of the votes. This would qualify Saied and Karoui to face off in the next round of voting, which Tunisia’s electoral commission chief said is expected by October 13.

Nabil Karoui, the owner of one of the most popular television stations as well as an ad agency in Tunisia, has been in jail since last month. He is being accused of money laundering and tax evasion.

Karoui was almost barred from running in the election: the Parliament had approved amendments to the electoral law in June. 

These amendments would have excluded Karoui, whose charity work was shown on his Nessma TV, because candidates who “advertised” their philanthropic work or had given “favours in cash or kind” in the year before the vote would not qualify.

 Yet because these amendments were not ratified by the late president Essebsi, Karoui was able to join the race. According to the electoral commission, Karoui is free to run for president unless he is convicted.

Kahlaoui, writing for the Washington Post, calls both Saied and Karoui anti-elitist populists. He points out that Karoui is a business partner of former prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, himself a media tycoon. Yet Karoui also uses his charity work to raise his profile amongst masses.