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How Tunisia’s presidential election could deliver a populist president

And the frontrunner candidate happens to be in jail. Here’s what you should know.

Supporters of Tunisia's jailed presidential candidate, Nabil Karoui, attend a campaign event in Tunis on Friday. (Fethi Belaid AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Tunisia is holding the second free presidential election in its history. The Tunisian democracy faces high uncertainty, with a populist candidate, Nabil Karoui, leading in the polls. Among other unprecedented circumstances, the presidential election will precede parliamentary elections set to take place next month. This is due to an exceptional case: the death of the first democratically elected Tunisian president this past July. The reversed order of operations and the unique variety of candidates pose a threat to an already fragile process. Here’s what you should know.

The top two candidates identify as populists.

The name Nabil Karoui may be the biggest surprise of the presidential election. Karoui is running from prison because of money-laundering and tax-evasion accusations. Some say the arrest and the refusal to release him are politically motivated. Karoui — founder of Nessma, a private TV station, and of “Karoui and Karoui,” a leading advertising company — does not fit the traditional mold of a politician, but he has been the front-runner in most polls for a few months now. Many perceive him to be a populist, according to the widest definition of the word — in other words, an “anti-elitist.”

As a communication strategist, Karoui has used his TV platform for years to air Turkish soap operas to attract a female electorate. He has also boosted his appeal to popular social classes with intermissions showing the work of the charity organization he established in the name of his deceased son, Yarham Khalil.

Second in the polls is another anti-elitist populist, Kais Saied, a university professor of constitutional law who is proposing to end the party-based electoral system. He is expected to be a serious contender in the runoff elections in October. Both his and Karoui’s candidacies indicate a probable populist wave among voters.

There is a probable Tunisian populist wave.

Reactionary support for populist candidates can grow from the perception of failed governance. Linking elite-level politics with corruption further widens the gap between voters and the electoral process. The recent coalition government brought together different factions of the two winning parties of the 2014 election: the secular Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamists of Ennahda. But this coalition failed to engage with the concerns of many Tunisians, creating a void that resulted in a growing number of Tunisians who seek a fresh approach. The populists are feeding off this sentiment, which could kick most of the political elite out of their jobs.

What we may start calling “Tunisian populism” is not entirely new: It follows a universal trend. In post-revolution Tunisia, voters’ expectations were high, and they quickly demanded major reforms. The populist offering has existed since the first free elections, in 2011. It shares aspects of what we find in populism worldwide, such as using media and soccer as tools for publicizing an anti-elitist discourse.

Moreover, for Karoui, there is a direct connection with world figures of populism, as he is a business partner of none other than Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy. But his use of a charity to seduce voters and suggest a distrust in government institutions may be seen as unusual. He touts the image of a wealthy and visible financier speaking to the masses.

Saied follows an opposite model. With no money or party, he has led a campaign by marching in the streets and talking to people without meetings and in limited media appearances. His campaign is based on his absence from the public eye — other than his social media presence.

Why Tunisia’s early presidential election will test its democracy

Election results may face scrutiny.

The problem with Karoui, however, is his past. He had a notable alliance with the former regime and was close to late president Beji Caid Essebsi. Such strong political ties are what allowed him to evade paying taxes for years, his accusers say. The ruling coalition even attempted but failed to introduce amendments to electoral law to prevent him from running. His arrest is now making many suspicious of the current government for possibly using the judiciary to influence the electoral process. International observers such as the European Union and the Carter Center have expressed concern. They issued statements this week suggesting that the implementation of equal-opportunity rules has been questionable and demanding increased transparency in these elections.

The accusations point mainly to the head of government — Youssef Chahed, also a presidential candidate — suggesting he and his party might not accept the election results. He is being accused of attempting to “keep” Karoui in prison. Many believe that Chahed fears that if Karoui and others get elected into power, they would use the judiciary to prosecute him on corruption charges. Some even suggest that Chahed would not leave office if he loses and would use all means available to him, including invalidating via parliament the election of Karoui. Such an ambiguous and uncertain environment might increase the electorate’s distrust of the political elite.

This probable populist wave and possible attempt to refuse election results could alienate popular support for democracy. There are a few candidates who represent democratic parties — as well as the demands of social movements — and defend social democratic alternatives. Chief among them is Mohamed Abbou, who seems to be trailing in the polls. Such candidates may be the only hope of combating the formerly tolerated corruption and crony capitalism. If those interested in building a sustainable democracy do not recognize this powerful trend toward anti-establishment populism and politics as a means to avoid persecution, the consolidation of a genuinely representative and structurally inclusive democracy will be difficult to achieve.

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Tarek Kahlaoui (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is a political activist and analyst. He led the presidential think tank “Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies” (2012-2014) and writes regularly on Tunisian politics and security issues.