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article imageOutsider leads after divisive Tunisia presidential poll

By AFP     Sep 16, 2019 in Politics

Political outsider Kais Saied was leading Tunisia's elections with just over a quarter of votes counted, the electoral commission said Monday, in the country's second free presidential vote since the Arab Spring.

Saied was on 19 percent, leading imprisoned media magnate Nabil Karoui, who was on 14.9 percent, and ahead of the candidate from the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party Abdelfattah Mourou (13.1 percent), 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 percent of votes, behind Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, who was on 9.6 percent.

"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.

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.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and presidential hopeful casts his ballot in the elections  b...
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and presidential hopeful casts his ballot in the elections, but he could emerge as the biggest loser of the polls with early returns putting him in fifth place
Fethi Belaid, AFP

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 percent, down from 64 percent in the country's first democratic polls in 2014.

Late Sunday, Chahed called on the liberal and centrist camps to band together for legislative elections set for October 6, voicing concern that low participation was "bad for the democratic transition".

- 'Wait and see' -

The election comes against a backdrop of serious social and economic challenges.

Karoui, a 56-year-old media magnate, has been behind bars since August 23 on charges of money laundering and Tunisia's judiciary has refused to release him three times.

A member of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) counts the ballots at a p...
A member of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) counts the ballots at a polling station on the outskirts of the capital Tunis, with rarely the outcome of an election so uncertain in Tunisia

"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.

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.

"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."

- 'Disgust' with political elite -

Tunisia has faced years of economic woes
Tunisia has faced years of economic woes

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.

On Sunday morning, senior citizen Adil Toumi had asked as he voted in the capital "where are the young people?"

Political scientist Hamza Meddeb told AFP "this is a sign of very deep discontent with the political class".

"Disgust with the political elite seems to have resulted in a vote for outsiders."

Distrust of the political establishment runs high in Tunisia, where unemployment is at 15 percent and the cost of living has risen by close to a third since 2016.

Supporters of jailed Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui celebrate in front of his headquar...
Supporters of jailed Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui celebrate in front of his headquarters in the Tunisian capital Tunis on September 15, 2019
Fethi Belaid, AFP

Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.

Around 70,000 security forces were mobilised for the polls.

The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls, October 6.

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