Democracy in Tunesia

Little-Known Professor and a Media Mogul Advance in Tunisia’s Presidential Election

Kaïs Saïed, a law professor and constitutional expert who ran as an independent, won 18.4 percent of votes cast.CreditCreditMosa’Ab Elshamy/Associated Press

By Ben Hubbard

  • 17, 2019 ISTANBUL — Two populists who have never held political office advanced to the final round in Tunisia’s presidential election on Tuesday, indicating fatigue among voters in the North African country with the established political forces, analysts said.

Tunisia’s election commission announced the top two vote-getters in Sunday’s election as Kaïs Saïed, a little-known law professor and constitutional expert, and Nabil Karoui, a media magnate currently in jail on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

The two men received 18.4 percent and 15.6 percent of votes cast, respectively.

“The conclusion is that Tunisians are fed up with the political parities,” said Youssef Cherif, the head of Columbia Global Centers Tunis. “It shows a big gap between the population and these political parties that were never able to mass together people and have concrete results.”

The two men will go into a runoff election next month. The date has yet to be announced.

The vote on Sunday was Tunisia’s second free presidential election since the 2011 revolution that overthrew the country’s longtime strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. His surprise ouster set off a string of uprisings across the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring.

While the rest of the Arab Spring countries — Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen — have returned to dictatorship or are mired in war, Tunisia has continued to make progress with democracy, despite attacks by jihadists that have damaged its vital tourism industry and exacerbated wider economic malaise.

Twenty-six candidates from a range of backgrounds and political parties competed in the election, including a former president, the defense minister, the prime minister, two former prime ministers and a moderate Islamic cleric from the Islamist party, Ennahda.

The cleric, Abdelfattah Mourou, 71, came in third with 12.9 percent of votes cast.

It was the first time that Ennahda, which is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, had put forward a candidate for president.

Nabil Karoui’s supporters calling for his release. Mr. Karoui received 15.6 percent of votes cast.CreditMohamed Messara/EPA, via Shutterstock

Previously, the party had focused on winning seats in parliament, fearing that winning power there in addition to the presidency would encourage non-Islamist forces to coalesce against it, as happened to the Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt after its revolution.

But it was unclear whether Ennahda expected its candidate to win or merely ran him to gain momentum for parliamentary elections scheduled for Oct. 6.

The two leading candidates have never held political office, but in other ways could hardly be more different.

Mr. Saïed is an intellectual who ran an independent, bare-bones campaign that made little effort to connect with voters on social media or in electoral districts. His profile was so low before he announced his candidacy that diplomats tracking Tunisian politics barely knew who he was.

His opponent, Mr. Karoui, is a well-known media mogul sometimes compared to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. He is known for using his private television station to advertise his charitable works in the country’s poor areas.

Mr. Karoui was arrested before the campaign began based on years-old charges of tax-evasion and money laundering. He remained in jail throughout the campaign and the vote, prompting accusations from his supporters that powerful parties were conspiring to sabotage his candidacy.

Mr. Karoui’s presence in the runoff poses a constitutional quandary. If he wins, it is unclear whether he would immediately be granted immunity and get out of jail or whether his incarceration would prevent him from taking office.

Since the revolution, Tunisia has yet to set up a constitutional court that could rule on such unprecedented matters.