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Political Outsider Scores Landslide Victory in Tunisia Presidential Runoff

Political Outsider Scores Landslide Victory in Tunisia Presidential Runoff

Monday, 14 October, 2019 - 04:45
Kais Saied won a landslide victory in the Tunisia presidential runoff. (Reuters)

Conservative academic Kais Saied, a political outsider, won a landslide victory Sunday in Tunisia's presidential runoff, sweeping aside his rival, media magnate Nabil Karoui, state television said.


In a contest which reflected Tunisia's shifting post-revolution political landscape, Saied, an independent, scooped almost 77 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for Karoui, Wataniya television said.


Official results will not be published until Monday and Karoui, has left the door open to an appeal.


Saied, a retired law professor backed by both Islamists and leftists, spent barely any money on an election campaign that has seized the imagination of voters with its promise to bring back the values of the 2011 uprising.


“We need to renew confidence between the people and the rulers,” Saied said in televised comments after the announcement of exit polls.


News of the victory triggered celebrations at his election campaign offices in central Tunis, as fireworks were set off outside and supporters honked car horns.


"Kais Saied, voice of the people," a gathered crowd chanted. "Long live Tunisia!"


"We are very happy. Tunisia has an honest man at the helm now. The difference between the two candidates was the work he has been doing," said Mustafa El Ghali, a family member.


The runoff was contested by two political newcomers -- pitting Saied who is nicknamed "Robocop" against the businessman who is dubbed Tunisia's "Berlusconi".


They trounced the old guard in a September 15 first round, highlighting voter anger over a stagnant economy, joblessness and poor public services in the cradle of the so-called Arab Spring.


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


The poll, Tunisia's second free presidential elections since its 2011 revolt, followed the death of president Beji Caid Essebsi in July.


With voter turnout higher than in other recent elections in Tunisia, Sunday’s poll appears to have reversed a recent trend of disillusionment with politics.


The electoral commission said after polls closed that turnout would be more than 60%. In the first round of the presidential election, which put Saied and Karoui through to the runoff above 24 other candidates, turnout was only 45%.


Saied campaigned upon the values of the 2011 revolution, based on opposition to Westernized and corrupt elites, and in favor of radical decentralization.


While the candidates were both seen as anti-establishment figures, the contrast between them was sharp, with Saied earning his nickname for his rigid and austere manner.


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


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


Karoui presented himself as a candidate for the poor and the appeal of the flamboyant candidate, who always appeared in designer suits, stemmed largely from his media empire and philanthropic activity.


If he is confirmed as president, Saied will face a difficult moment in Tunisian political history.


The parliament elected last week is deeply fractured and though the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that took most seats backed him on Sunday after its own candidate was beaten in the first round, it may struggle to build a ruling coalition.


The prime minister, chosen by parliament, has more direct powers than the president, but since he is the most senior elected official in Tunisia, he shoulders much of the public praise or blame for the state of the country.


All recent governments have been bedevilled by economic ills: unemployment of 15%, inflation of 6.8%, high public debt, a powerful union that opposes economic reforms and foreign lenders who demand them.


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