Outsiders surge in Tunisia’s presidential polls

Updated September 17, 2019

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ARIANA: Staffers of Tunisia’s election commission tally votes as they prepare the results of the presidential vote on Monday.—AFP
ARIANA: Staffers of Tunisia’s election commission tally votes as they prepare the results of the presidential vote on Monday.—AFP

TUNIS: Two candidates who claim they will win through to Tunisia’s presidential run-off — a conservative law expert and an imprisoned media mogul — could hardly be more different, but both bill themselves as political outsiders.

Nabil Karoui, behind bars since August 23 on charges of money laundering, is a populist showman whose political colours changed with the times, culminating in the launch of his Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) party just months ago.

Maverick Kais Saied, meanwhile, is an academic committed to social conservatism who has ploughed his own furrow.

Nicknamed “Robocop” due to his abrupt, staccato speech and rigid posture, the impeccably dressed Saied shunned political parties, avoided mass rallies and campaigned door-to-door.

Hours after polling booths closed in the country’s second free presidential polls since the 2011 Arab Spring, he declared he was in pole position.

“I am first in the first round and if I am elected president I will apply my programme,” he said in a spartan apartment in central Tunis.

On the campaign trail, he advocated a rigorous overhaul of the constitution and voting system, to decentralise power “so that the will of the people penetrates into central government and puts an end to corruption”.

With a quarter votes counted Monday, Tunisia’s electoral commission (ISIE) put Saied in the lead with 19 percent of the vote.

Often surrounded by young acolytes, he has pushed social conservatism, defending the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.

While Saied came from the sidelines with his unique approach to courting Tunisia’s voters — and did so with barely any money behind him — media magnate Nabil Karoui’s story is more flamboyant.

He has long maintained a high profile, using his Nessma TV channel to launch high-profile charity campaigns, often appearing in designer suits even while meeting some of the country’s poorest citizens in marginalised regions.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2019