Thousands take to streets after exit polls give conservative academic more than 70% of the vote
A low-profile, conservative law professor has beaten a charismatic media magnate released from prison last week in Tunisia’s presidential election runoff.
In a contest that reflected Tunisia’s shifting post-revolution political landscape, Kais Saied scooped more than 70% of the vote, according to two exit polls, more than 40 points ahead of Nabil Karoui.
Karoui conceded defeat, issuing a statement of congratulations to his opponent. “I would like to congratulate you on your election to the presidency,” he said.
Saied thanked the country’s young people “for turning a new page” and vowed to try to build “a new Tunisia”. About 90% of 18- to 25-year-olds voted for Saied, according to estimates by the Sigma polling institute, compared with 49.2% of voters over 60.
Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, Tunis, to celebrate Saied’s victory, honking horns and singing the national anthem. “Kais Saied, voice of the people,” a crowd chanted.
“It’s a historic day: Tunisia is reaping the fruits of the revolution,” said Boussairi Abidi, a 39-year-old mechanic. “Kais Saied is going to put an end to corruption. He will be a fair president.”
Earlier, Karoui had told a news conference that he had been denied a chance to compete fairly and would decide whether to appeal once the electoral commission had announced the official tally.
Analysts said the choice of the two candidates over better-known political faces, including many associated with the country’s revolution or with the old regime of the overthrown president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, reflected widespread discontent with the country’s ailing economy – a key factor that drove Tunisians on to the streets in 2011.
“The tremendous disappointment with the lack of economic reform was paramount on Tunisian voters’ minds,” said Safwan Masri, a professor of Middle Eastern and north African politics at Columbia University.
“The fact that presidential candidates such as the country’s defence minister or its prime minister didn’t do well sends a strong message that ‘we’re done with you, we’re done with the establishment and their failed promises’.”
Some Tunisians nickname Saied, 61, “Robocop” for his stiff manner and dour presentation. They call Karoui, 56, a flamboyant tycoon who wears designer suits, “Michael Corleone”, a reference both to his suaveness and the corruption allegations that have dogged him for years.
The pair squared off in a rare television debate on Friday evening in which Saied – who is not a member of a political party and shunned mass rallies during his campaign – addressed the audience in classical Arabic while Karoui, speaking in the local dialect, propounded his campaign’s ambitious promises to help the poor.
Karoui has run the private television station Nessma since 2002, burnishing his charitable reputation in past years with a popular show in which he distributes appliances to needy families.
Saied, in contrast, was relatively unknown in the decades he spent teaching constitutional law at a university in Tunis until he retired in 2018 and launched his political campaign. His apparent lack of charisma may be playing to his advantage, according to analysts, who say his appeal rests on the idea that he is incorruptible and sternly civic-minded.
He argued for scrapping the country’s parliamentary system in favour of a decentralised democratic model and is socially conservative, declaring his support for the death penalty and against a law under discussion that would distribute inheritances equally between men and women. He has spoken disparagingly of homosexuality and says he would seek to limit the work of foreign NGOs in the country.
Karoui was arrested on corruption charges on the eve of campaigning earlier this year in timing that many saw as a ploy to stem his popularity but which appeared to have backfired, enshrining his status as an outsider. He remains under investigation and cannot travel abroad.
Tunisia has come close to chaos in the years since its revolution, as Islamist and secularist forces fought for control of the country. Its transition appeared most risky in 2013 after several leftist leaders were assassinated, allegedly by Islamic extremists, deepening the polarisation between the country’s political factions.
Yet it pulled back, largely due to the efforts of civil society groups (who were awarded the 2015 Nobel peace prize) and political elders who struck an improbable power-sharing agreement in 2016.
The agreement has brought stability but also stalled reforms that might have helped to curb corruption or slim down the country’s bloated and sclerotic bureaucracy.
Saied was considered the favourite and had the backing of the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the largest share of parliament though fell far short of claiming a majority. Presidential power is also limited, and the significant reforms Saied advocates would require a two-thirds majority in parliament that will be difficult to build, said Masri.
“He is going to be an isolated leader because he does not have a political party,” he said. “There’s a chance he could be an irrelevant president.”