Law professor takes unexpected lead in Tunisia polls

Leading candidates in first round of voting - law professor Kaies Saied and imprisoned media mogul Nabil Karoui - have drawn on the same "anti-system" sentiment among the electorate.

TUNIS - Tunisia's electoral commission on Tuesday said law professor Kais Saied and detained media mogul Nabil Karoui won most votes in Sunday's presidential election, beating major political leaders to advance to a second-round runoff.

The first-round results threw Tunisia and its young democracy into an unprecedented situation with a constitutional law professor, viewed as very conservative and apparently with few means to campaign pitted against a media-savvy communicator with progressive views and means to publicize them — but jailed since last month.

The commission's announcement following a full count of votes confirmed exit polls released on Sunday evening and partial results issued throughout Monday. The low turnout — about 45% — may have favored candidates from outside the system.

Sunday's vote has been seen in Tunisia as a sharp rebuke of the established political forces that have dominated since the 2011 revolution, failing to address the country's economic troubles.

Unemployment plagues about 15 percent of the population, especially young graduates, while inflation eats away at already low incomes.


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 defence minister, the moderate Islamist Ennahda candidate Abdelfattah Mourou came in third with 12.9%.

The two leading candidates - though very different - have drawn on the same "anti-system" sentiment among the electorate, spurred by exasperation with the status quo. Neither candidate has ever held political office.

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.

A fiercely independent academic, he advocates a radical decentralisation of power, with local democracy and the ability to remove elected officials from office during their mandates.

Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 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.

But he has previously suggested that he would remain outside the party system, saying, "I have lived independent and I will remain independent."

Karoui, a well-known but controversial figure, is the owner and founder of a major television news channel - Nessma TV - and the founder of a large charity that focuses on the plight of Tunisia's poor.

Tunisian voters on Sunday "preferred to venture into the unknown rather than extend a hand again to those who betrayed their hopes", Le Quotidien newspaper said.

Charges and violations

Karoui's arrest in the runup to the election cemented his status as an outsider, despite being a longtime key supporter of president Beji Caid Essebsi, whose death on July 25 brought forward the polls.

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 by the incumbent Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who also ran for president. Karoui 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.

Suspense continued to hang over the first-round electoral process with multiple candidates under scrutiny for allegedly infringing campaign rules, according to a member of the electoral commission ISIE.

ISIE said on Tuesday it would investigate alleged electoral violations, including campaigning on behalf of Karoui by his Nessma TV.

Appeals to have Karoui freed before the polls were rejected, but his lawyers said earlier they would refile for his release after the first round electoral results were confirmed.

Karoui remains eligible to run despite his imprisonment, as long as any conviction does not also specifically deprive him of his civil rights, according to ISIE.

But questions remain 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 unprecedented situation underscores the complications facing the young Tunisian democracy holding its second democratic election for president since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, unleashing the Arab Spring across the region.