'Turning a new page': Tunisia picks law professor as new president

'Turning a new page': Tunisia picks law professor as new president
Kais Saied, an independent candidate who ran on a conservative, anti-corruption platform, takes the presidency with at least 72% of the popular vote.
7 min read
14 October, 2019
Saied takes presidency with at least 72% of popular vote [Anadolu]
Tunisia picked its new president from two "outsiders" in a decisive run-off vote marked by a higher than expected turnout and a strong stance against corruption in a widespread anti-system mood.

On Sunday, Tunisians headed to the final round of voting of a presidential election pitting two starkly different opponents, Nabil Karoui, a media tycoon recently freed from jail, and Kais Saied, a conservative law professor.

Saied takes the presidency with at least 72 percent of popular vote, exit polls conducted by Emrhod and Sigma Conseil indicated. Based on Emrhod poll, he won in every constituency of the country, from the lowest of 56.7 percent in the Jendouba governorate to the highest of 97.9 percent in the region of Tataouine.

Saied, who's perceived to embody the anti-corruption message, thanked the country's young people "for turning a new page," and vowed to try to build "a new Tunisia."

Thousands of supporters of conservative academic Kais Saied celebrated late into Sunday night after the projections were announced.

Official preliminary results are expected later today.

Saied, who's perceived to embody the anti-corruption message, thanked the country's young people 'for turning a new page' and vowed to try to build 'a new Tunisia'

The two presidential hopefuls faced off in a live TV debate on Friday, an event rarely witnessed in the Arab world.

Turnout stood at 57.8 percent at closing of polling stations, higher than in the first presidential round (just above 45 percent). Participation rates across the country were modest however a little higher compared with the previous voting session.  

Sunday's vote followed an intensive two-day campaign after Karoui was released just days ahead of the second tour. Before then, the law professor had decided not to campaign on moral grounds while his adversary was in prison where he had been held since before the first tour pending a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion.

Read more here: 'Champion of Tunisia's poor' Nabil Karoui out of jail just ahead of presidential run-off

Seven million electors were called to vote for the third time in one month after the early round of the presidential election that saw political newcomers sweeping aside the old guard to reflect a shift in the country's post-2011 political landscape.

Tunisia's second free presidential poll since the 2011 revolution followed the death of late head of state Beji Caid Essebsi in July.

The run-off outcome initially seemed uncertain. Saied topped the first tour on September 15 with 18.4 percent of votes, while the media magnate followed closely with 15.6 percent.

Karoui, on the other hand, got a boost with his newly founded party, Qalb Tounes, coming second in legislative elections held a week earlier.

"The choice for voters is not clear, but Kais Saied has better chances to win the election," Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a researcher at the University of Paris 1 and specialist on North Africa told French daily 20minutes.fr.

On election day, Tunisians casting their votes showed a mix of attitudes. Partisans of either of the candidates confirmed their choice through the ballot box. Those who were opposed to endorsing an imprisoned contender felt more driven to support the retired professor. Others seeing Karoui as a victim in a highly politicised case were encouraged to express their sympathy by voting since he was out of prison.

Many citizens said to have felt "obliged", being their duty to vote in the run-off regardless of their early preferences from the beginning of the presidential race.

"I'm not really convinced but I had to vote," Malika, a secretary aged 37, said after casting her ballot in Jebel al Ahmar, an impoverished neighbourhood of Tunis, "I chose Saied. He has a higher stature than his rival. He pledged to help young people, and I want a better future for my daughter."

I chose Saied. He has a higher stature than his rival. He pledged to help young people, and I want a better future for my daughter

Exiting a polling centre with his son, Yassine, 38, seemed confident about his vote. Then he clarified: "I don't like Saied but he's honest and clean. I came here to vote against corruption."

Others echoed the same unease they have with Karoui because of his corruption and lobbying.

Several voters appeared unconvinced and opted for a sanction vote to block the other candidate from becoming president.

"There are two candidates, one is corrupted, the other is a professor without political experience. I've voted against corruption, and against the system too," a 22-year-old man named Behi Eddine motivated his vote after coming out of a polling centre in Bab Souika, central Tunis. He had chosen a different candidate in the previous electoral round, and thought he would abstain from voting until he made up his mind on Sunday morning.

"I know Saied is considered a threat to liberties. But we [Tunisians] can always oppose him later as a president," the youth added expressing reservations about his chosen final contestant.

Walking from the same voting centre was Afef, 34, an insurance agent, also doubtful about her electoral choice. "I'm really not sure, my choice was to avoid going backwards. I've just voted for Karoui not because I like him, I didn't vote him in the first place, but he's against Ennahdha," she explained hinting at the Muslim party's decision to endorse Kais Saied for the second-round election.

She said that anti-Islamists like her had "waited for the results of the recent legislative polls to reorient their votes in the presidential ballot accordingly" and stand against the religious conservative party, one of the most influential political groups.

The final voting came in the midst of talks for the formation of a new government following the October 6 parliamentary election that showed the Ennahdha movement in the lead gaining 52 seats in the 217-member assembly.

Other Tunisians did not vote at all, uninterested or distrustful of a political class that has failed to make economic progress eight years into the 2011 revolution amid high unemployment, rising prices and poor public services. 

Abstentionism reflected once again the rejection of established parties and politicians that clearly emerged in both the presidential and the legislative elections.

"I've never voted since 2011. Nothing has changed," said Eimad, 45, sitting at a cafe near the old city, "But I expect the majority will vote for Saied. The TV debate will work in his favour, his performance was better."

Ahmed, a 28-year-old added: "I didn't vote in the first vote, I'm not going to vote this time. But I don't want Karoui for president, it should be someone well educated."

Rahma Essid, a young activist, voiced her position against both presidential candidates.

"My beliefs prevent me from voting for either of them," she stated, "Karoui is a big corrupt, a mafia man and a real threat to freedom.

"Saied is a danger for the country, he wants to dismantle our local democracy. He's against equality in inheritance, individual liberties and gay rights. He's supported by Ennahdha and far worse Islamists," she continued.

"The political void left the road open to these two populists," Mohamed Kerrou, a Tunisian political analyst and law professor, posted on his Facebook page after Friday's head-to-head TV debate. "The best thing is not to vote for these two political zeros."

Though both self-styled "outsiders", the contrast between the two anti-establishment figures differ sharply.

Saied is an expert on constitutional law. He holds socially conservative views opposing the decriminalisation of homosexuality and equal inheritance for men and women, in favour of restoring the death penalty. He has proposed reorganising the political system by giving power to local councils. He is determined to put an end to corruption. He has no political party.

Karoui is a powerful businessman and media mogul, owner of private Nessma TV station, and founder of a charity focused on alleviating poverty. He built his popularity largely from his media empire and philanthropic activity. His campaign was based on fighting poverty. He said he wants to liberalise the Tunisian economy. He heads the new Qalb Tounes party. Although now free, he is still under investigation and banned from travelling abroad.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec