The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Political outsiders head for runoff in Tunisian presidential vote, upsetting establishment

Candidate Kais Saied speaks in Tunis on Tuesday. (Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP)

TUNIS — In a resounding defeat for Tunisia’s establishment, two political outsiders, including one who campaigned from jail, are headed for a runoff to become the next president of the sole democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings.

 With all the ballots counted from Sunday’s election, the nation’s election commission reported Tuesday that Kais Saied, a once-obscure law professor who ran as an independent, has secured 18.4 percent of the vote. Nabil Karoui, a media tycoon who was detained in August on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering, won 15.6 percent.

In third place in the field of more than two dozen contenders was Abdelfattah Mourou of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, one of the most influential political groups since Tunisia’s revolution ousted longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and touched off a wave of uprisings across the region.

“Here in Tunisia a large number of voters sent a clear message of rebuke to the ruling political establishment,” Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, wrote in a tweet. Tunisia is “entering new territory, a realignment underway,” she added. “What unfolds next, not clear.”

The North African country’s second free presidential election took place amid growing disillusionment over the lack of economic progress since the revolution. High unemployment, rising prices and cuts in government spending have triggered street protests. Islamist extremism has grown, with both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda staging attacks. 

Many Tunisians, especially youths, are alienated from their leaders and political parties, according to recent polls and analysts. Sunday’s vote reflected that lack of faith in the status quo. In an indication of voter apathy, roughly 45 percent of the country’s 7 million registered voters cast ballots, down nearly 20 percentage points from the turnout in Tunisia’s 2014 presidential election.

“These difficult economic conditions have contributed to frustration with not just the ruling parties but the entire political system,” Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in an essay on the organization’s website. “Both Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui were able to capitalize on this frustration, though in very different ways.”

This year’s election, pushed forward by two months following the death in late July of 92-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi, was the most competitive since the revolution. The 26 candidates represented diverse political, social and religious views. 

They included Prime Minister Youssef Chahed; Moncef Marzouki, the interim president after the revolution; and former defense minister Abdelkarim Zbidi. Two women also ran, including Abir Moussi, a 45-year-old lawyer who professed support for Ben Ali.

The run-up to the election was peaceful, with boisterous campaign rallies unlike anything seen in a region ruled by dictators and monarchs. The one incident that marred the image of an otherwise maturing democracy was the arrest of Karoui.

The 55-year-old media mogul, who is the founder of a private television station channel, was detained last month in a case that was three years old. Noting the timing of the arrest, Karoui’s supporters said his detention was politically motivated. Two groups of international observers, the European Union and the Carter Center, raised concerns that the electoral process had been unduly influenced, especially as Karoui was leading in the polls.

Even though he is a member of Tunisia’s wealthy elite and a founding member of Essebsi’s party, Karoui portrayed himself as a populist champion of the downtrodden who could change the system from the outside. He doled out food and other forms of charity to the impoverished, promising “a revolution” for those neglected by the political establishment that would bring economic growth.

Tunisian law allowed him to campaign from prison, and his supporters portrayed him as a political prisoner, likening him to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

The 61-year-old Saied, in contrast, campaigned only by meeting voters on their doorsteps to explain his views. The constitutional law professor at the University of Tunis has never belonged to a political party. Tunisians have nicknamed him “Robot Man” for his stiff manner and rapid, staccato speeches filled with facts, often in classical Arabic.

According to the Project on Middle East Democracy, Saied holds deeply conservative views on social issues, notably supporting the death penalty, which Tunisia suspended in 1994. He has also referred to homosexuality “as an illness and foreign plot.” 

Still, Saied has managed to appeal to voters, especially disillusioned youths, by promising to be anti-establishment. He has vowed to live at home and not in the lavish presidential palace if elected, and he has promised to restore power to the people.

The runoff election could be held as early as the end of this month, but most likely will be in October. Although no trial date has been set, if Karoui is convicted before the next round, he would be replaced by the third-place candidate — presumably Ennahda’s Mourou. It is unclear whether Karoui would receive immunity from prosecution if he won the runoff. 

Moreover, parliamentary elections are scheduled for Oct. 6. They are considered more important than Sunday’s vote because they would produce the next prime minister. In Tunisia, the prime minister derives power from parliament and has more authority than the president.

Chahed, even though he lost in the presidential vote, remains prime minister. And Saied, without a party, will have no representation in parliament.

“With two more elections in the coming weeks, Tunisia’s political earthquake may be just beginning,” Grewal wrote.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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