Kais Saied greets people in Tunis. Reuters
Tunisia’s electoral commission said on Tuesday law professor Kais Saied and detained media mogul Nabil Karoui won the most votes in Sunday’s presidential election, beating veteran political leaders to advance to a second-round runoff.
It is a sharp rejection of the established forces that have dominated since the 2011 revolution but failed to address economic troubles that include high unemployment and inflation.
Tunisia’s president has only limited powers, controlling foreign and defence policy, while a prime minister chosen by the parliament manages other portfolios.
Tunisia’s main political parties are now turning to a parliamentary election on Oct. 6.
“Tunisians have written a new and brilliant page in the history of Tunisia,” Saied told reporters at his humble headquarters in the heart of the capital after the announcement.
“I am an independent, but I am ready to work with all parties to build a new Tunisia.” Karoui’s Qalb Tounes party did not release any immediate statement, with their candidate still in jail over allegations of tax evasion and money laundering, but it issued footage showing supporters watching the commission’s declaration and cheering. He denies the charges.
The announcement, following a full count of votes, confirmed exit polls released on Sunday evening and partial results issued throughout Monday. No date has yet been set for the second round, pending any appeals to the first round results, but it must take place by mid-October.
Saied took 18.4% of the votes and Karoui 15.6%. Of the other 24 candidates, who included the prime minister, two former premiers, a former president and the defence minister, the moderate hardliner Ennahda candidate Abdelfattah Mourou came in third with 12.9%.
Saied, little known before the election, is a constitutional law professor who ran a modest campaign with next to no publicity or funding, espousing conservative social views while pushing for a return to the principles of the 2011 uprising.
Several losing conservative candidates, including former president Moncef Marzouki, came out in support of Saied. Ennahda congratulated the two candidates without formally backing either. No losing candidates have yet endorsed Karoui.
Karoui, a well-known but controversial figure, is the owner of a major television news channel and founder of a large charity that focuses on the plight of Tunisia’s poor.
He was detained weeks before the election over a tax evasion and money laundering case brought three years ago by an independent transparency watchdog.
He denies all wrongdoing and his supporters attribute his arrest to political manipulation. He was unable to take part in televised debates before the vote and electoral monitors have voiced concern that voters have been deprived of a chance to hear him campaign.
A Karoui victory in the second round could raise difficult legal and constitutional questions given his status in detention in a case for which no verdict has yet been delivered.
The commission said that if Karoui wins the runoff, it will send his name to the parliament and the matter will then be for it and the judiciary to resolve. A constitutional court, mandated by the 2014 constitution, has not yet been set up.
Tumbling turnout, down from 64 per cent in Tunisia’s first democratic polls in 2014 to just 45 per cent on Sunday, was a reflection of voters’ fatigue with political infighting, analysts said.
“The abstention was a sign of a rejection of the system rather than disinterest,” said political scientist Hamza Meddeb.
“People are fed up with a political class which failed to respond to their economic and social expectations,” he said, criticising candidates for their “lack of thought and vision”.
Sophie Bessis, a historian, said senior politicians had failed to convince voters that they would “resolve their basic problems”.
The two frontrunners − law professor and independent Kais Saied and jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui − cornered the “anti-system vote”, despite the latter being seen as part of Tunisia’s “elite”, Meddeb said.
The media magnate is under provisional detention on money laundering charges, increasing the pressure on the judiciary to release him if he goes through to a second round.