A voter casts her ballot as she carries her daughter inside a polling station during the first round of the presidential election, in Tunis on Sunday. AFP
Political outsider Kais Saied was leading Tunisia's elections with just over a quarter of votes counted, the electoral commission said on Monday, in the country's second free presidential vote since the Arab Spring.
Saied was on 19 per cent, leading imprisoned media magnate Nabil Karoui, who was on 14.9 per cent, and ahead of the candidate from the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party Abdelfattah
Mourou (13.1 per cent), according to the electoral organ (ISIE). Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a presidential hopeful whose popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and the rising cost of living, could well turn out to be the election's biggest loser.
ISIE figures showed him in fifth on 7.4 per cent of votes, behind Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, who was on 9.6 per cent.
"The anti-system strategy has won," ISIE member Adil Brinsi told AFP, warning however there was still a lot to play for among the three leading players.
"It's not finished yet. Mourou could very easily move from third to second place, in front of Karoui," he added. Around 70,000 security forces were mobilised for the polls.
People pose for a picture after casting their vote during presidential election in Tunis. Reuters
The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by Oct.23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls, October 6.
Local papers splashed photos across their front pages of law professor Saied and magnate Karoui, after exit polls showed they had qualified for the second round of voting. "An unexpected verdict," ran a headline in La Presse.
Le Temps titled its editorial "The Slap," while the Arabic language Echourouk newspaper highlighted a "political earthquake" and a "tsunami" in the Maghreb.
It all points towards a major upset for Tunisia's political establishment, in place since the 2011 uprising that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
It could also usher in a period of immense uncertainty for the fledgling north African democracy, the sole success story of the Arab Spring revolts.
Tunisia's electoral commission (ISIE) reported low turnout at 45 per cent, down from 64 per cent in the country's first democratic polls in 2014.
Late on Sunday, Chahed called on the liberal and centrist camps to band together for legislative elections set for Oct.6, voicing concern that low participation was "bad for the democratic transition."
The election comes against a backdrop of serious social and economic challenges.
Karoui, a 56-year-old media magnate, has been behind bars since Aug.23 on charges of money laundering and Tunisia's judiciary has refused to release him three times.
"So long as the judicial system does not announce a ruling on Karoui's case, nothing will change in the second round with regard to this candidate," in the event that he makes it to the run-off, Brinsi said.
However, "if he is convicted between the first and second round, it would be necessary to bypass him and organise a second round involving the third-placed candidate."
A controversial businessman, labelled a "populist" by critics, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country's poorest. His apparent rival is political neophyte Saied.
The highly conservative constitutionalist has shunned political parties and mass rallies; instead, he has opted to go door-to-door to explain his policies.
An electoral worker gestures after allowing a child to get her finger inked at a polling station during presidential election in Tunis. Reuters
He advocates a rigorous overhaul of the constitution and voting system, to decentralise power "so that the will of the people penetrates into central government and puts an end to corruption."
He also set forth his social conservatism, defending the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.
Electoral workers prepare a ballot box inside a polling station during presidential election in Tunis. Reuters
"It's going to be new," said a baker named Said on Monday, issuing a wry smile. "We'll have to wait and see. Anyway, what matters in Tunisia is the parliament."
The first round was marked by high rates of apathy among young voters in particular, pushing ISIE's head to put out an emergency call to them Sunday an hour before polls closed.
With so many in the race, Sunday's vote could produce a very close outcome, with few votes separating the two candidates who make the second-round run-off, due by Oct.13, from the others.
The election was brought forward after the death in July of the incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi.
Analysts have warned that a close outcome, with several candidates near the cut-off point to make the second round, could make appeals likely.
Tunisia's president has direct control over foreign and defence policy while most other portfolios are handled by a prime minister chosen by parliament, for which an election will be held on Oct.6.
Tunisia's interim prime minister Kamel Morjane registers to cast his ballot at a polling station in Sousse. AFP
With that limited role, many candidates have emphasised their policies on security - an area in which Tunisia has improved since two jihadist attacks in 2015 killed scores of tourists, devastating the country's tourism sector.
A pair of armed soldiers stood outside each polling station Reuters visited.
Despite economic frustrations, many voters said they were proud of Tunisia's march to democracy.
Outside the capital, in the village of Sidi Thabet, six middle-aged men sat debating the merits of rival campaigns in a field under the shade of a gum tree, having pulled chairs over from the cafe opposite.
They each had the inky forefinger that showed they had voted, and were united in concern at the poor level of public services in a local economy based on growing olives, vegetables and fruit, though they supported different candidates.
"We all voted for different candidates but despite our differences, we are discussing it peacefully," said Noureddine Dridi, a service manager at a company.
Reuters/ Agence France-Presse
Key players include media mogul Nabil Karoui — behind bars due to an ongoing money laundering probe — Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist inspired Ennahdha party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
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