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article imageMedia mogul, academic face off as Tunisians choose president

By Kaouther Larbi (AFP)     Oct 12, 2019 in Politics

Tunisians voted on Sunday in a presidential runoff pitting a conservative academic against a media magnate fresh out of jail, reflecting a shift in the country's post-revolution political landscape.

The political newcomers swept aside the old guard in the first round, highlighting voter anger over a stagnant economy, high unemployment and poor public services in the cradle of the Arab Spring.

Adding controversy and suspense to the contest, presidential contender Nabil Karoui only walked free on Wednesday, having spent more than a month behind bars on suspicion of money-laundering.

"Here's to this derby ending in Tunisia's favour," said Najoua Nahali, 53, holding up her ink-stained finger after voting in central Tunis.

The vote, Tunisia's second free presidential election since the 2011 revolt, follows the death of president Beji Caid Essebsi in July.

Polling stations are due to close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) with exit polls expected on Sunday evening and official results by Tuesday.

In one polling station, voters said they were divided between "the one who will apply the law" and the one "who helps the poor," referring to a charity television show that boosted Karoui's popularity.

Tunisian election
Tunisian election
Vincent LEFAI, AFP

"Today is a chance to recover our Tunisia, the modern Tunisia that is for women... not the Tunisia that frightens us," said Karoui after casting his vote in Tunis.

The 56-year-old business tycoon portrays himself as a bulwark against political Islam, which he accuses his rival Kais Saied of supporting.

Saied, a constitutional law expert, called for Tunisians "to make a choice today in complete freedom".

"You have created a new concept of revolution, let your conscience guide you and you will win your sovereignty," he said.

The 61-year-old independent candidate campaigned upon the values of the 2011 revolution, based on opposition to westernised and corrupt elites, and in favour of radical decentralisation.

On Friday night, the two candidates went head-to-head in a rare television debate, a last bid to woo voters.

Karoui appeared relaxed, if at times hesitant. Speaking in Tunisian dialect, he stuck to his key themes of economic liberalisation and fighting poverty.

Serious but also at ease, Saied criticised the country's partisan system, in classical Arabic.

The runoff outcome remains uncertain, with a ban on opinion polls, but Karoui received a boost with his newly formed party, Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunis), coming second in legislative elections a week earlier.

Presidential contender Nabil Karoui only walked free days before the vote having spent more than a m...
Presidential contender Nabil Karoui only walked free days before the vote having spent more than a month behind bars on suspicion of money-laundering

Saied topped the first round in the presidential election, held on September 15, with 18.4 percent of votes, while Karoui followed with 15.6 percent.

Nearly half of eligible voters cast their ballots in that round.

"Rendezvous with history", headlined Tunisia's La Presse newspaper on Sunday, while French language daily Le Temps said absent voters "will be in the wrong".

Officials said turnout in the runoff was 17.8 percent by noon, higher than at the same time during the first round.

- Sharp contrast -

While the candidates are both seen as anti-establishment figures, the contrast between them is sharp, with Saied nicknamed "Robocop" for his rigid and austere manner.

Presidential candidate Kais Saied called on Tunisians to cast their vote "in complete freedom&q...
Presidential candidate Kais Saied called on Tunisians to cast their vote "in complete freedom"

A social conservative, he has defended the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.

Saied taught at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences for nearly two decades.

He launched an unorthodox election campaign that saw him shun mass rallies and instead canvass door-to-door.

Karoui presents himself as a candidate for the poor but spent most of his campaign imprisoned on money-laundering and tax-evasion charges. He was released on his fourth appeal in court after threatening to contest the results.

The appeal of flamboyant Karoui, who always appears in designer suits, stems largely from his media empire and philanthropic activity.

After the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Nessma TV channel that Karoui founded turned from entertainment programming towards news, becoming one of Tunisia's largest private broadcasters.

His arrest in the run-up to the election cemented his status as an outsider -- despite being a longtime key supporter of Essebsi, whose death on July 25 brought forward the polls.

Karoui says the allegations against him are politically motivated.

Although now a free man, he is still under investigation for fraud and banned from travelling abroad.

But if he wins the runoff, Karoui will receive immunity "and all the legal proceedings against him... will be suspended until the end of his mandate", constitutional law professor Salsabil Klibi told AFP.

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