Jailed Media Magnate, Independent Law Professor in Tunisian Presidential Runoff
Tunisia’s electoral commission on Tuesday said law professor Kais Saied and detained media mogul Nabil Karoui without a party won most votes in Sunday’s presidential election, beating major political leaders to advance to a second-round runoff.
The commission’s announcement following a full count of votes confirmed exit polls released on Sunday evening and partial results issued throughout Monday.
Saied took 18.4% of the votes and Karoui 15.6%. Of the other 24 candidates, who included the prime minister, two former prime ministers, a former president and the defense minister, the moderate Islamist Ennahda candidate Abdelfattah Mourou came in third with 12.9%.
Neither candidate has ever held political office.
The date for the runoff has not yet been announced.
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.
Karoui, a well-known but controversial figure, is the owner of a major television news channel and the 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.
Karoui's lawyers are seeking his release from jail before the runoff.
Questions loom as to how Karoui can campaign on an even footing ahead of the runoff if he remains behind bars, or what happens if he wins. There have been suggestions that Karoui would invoke immunity, but it was unclear whether he could do that without first being officially declared president — not just the winner.
The low turnout — about 45% — may have favored candidates from outside the system.
Saied appears to be the ultimate outsider, saying in an interview earlier Tuesday that he is in competition with no one — even Karoui.
"I'm not in competition or in a race with anyone," he told The Associated Press at his office in central Tunis.
He spoke shortly before official preliminary results were announced.
Karoui, considered a progressive, was likely to become his contender for the Tunisian presidency.
Saied said that people should vote in the runoff with their "conscience."
He said: "I did not say elect me ... I don't look at other competitors."
Saied suggested that he would remain outside the party system, saying, "I have lived independent and I will remain independent."
Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on October 6, another challenge since the new president's success will depend on having support from lawmakers. That could pose a challenge to Saied without a political affiliation.