Tunisia elected a tall, lean, anti-establishment and independent former law professor as its new president on Sunday, after Kais Saied, 61, who ran a low-key volunteer-based campaign, won a landslide victory with 72.7 per cent of the vote against his opponent, TV magnate and businessman Nabil Karoui, on 27.3 per cent.
With a turnout of 55 per cent, Sunday’s election significantly exceeded last week’s parliamentary election, which saw a 41 per cent turnout.
Saied’s landslide translates into 2.7 million votes, close to what the whole of Tunisia’s 217-member parliament got when 2.8 million registered voters elected it last week and six times the votes received by the Islamist Ennahda Movement, the largest political party in parliament.
It also surpasses the 1.7 million votes received by Beji Caid Essebsi, who won the country’s first free presidential elections in 2014.
“Legitimacy is back,” said Youssef Cherif, head of Columbia Global Centres, a US reseach organisation in Tunis.
Cherif described Saied’s victory as a “second revolution because of the number of people that voted against the system.” It was an uprising that was part of a regional phenomenon, given the protests in Algeria, Sudan and Jordan, and which had resonated in polling stations and not the streets, Cherif said.
Since the 2010-2011 popular uprising in Tunisia, which unseated former president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, the small North African country has witnessed ten major government changes and two presidents.
Saied, a retired 61-year-old professor of constitutional law with no political affiliations, ran a quiet campaign based on young volunteers spanning the political spectrum and including Marxists and conservative right-wing voters.
In an improvised speech following the announcement of the unofficial results on Sunday, Saied thanked all Tunisians and paid tribute to the Palestinian cause. He spoke about the Tunisian Revolution and the iconic chants that had emerged during the uprisings to be picked up by other Arab peoples demanding freedom.
“The era of guardianship is over,” he declared.
Cheering crowds celebrating his victory filled the streets of the capital Tunis. “No fear, no terror, authority is in the hands of the people,” they chanted.
Saied is often portrayed in the international media as a conservative opposed to gay rights and equal inheritance between men and women and a proponent of the death penalty. When Ennahda declared its support for Saied after its own candidate fell out of the presidential race last month, this cemented suspicions about his alleged ideological affiliations.
“It is precisely because Saied was careful not to frame himself as affiliated to any political current that he appealed to so many voters, including the far left and the far right,” said Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a Tunisia-based researcher.
Tunisia’s penal code penalises sodomy under a penal code passed under the French occupation, and no serious attempt was made after the 2011 uprising to address the issue. Former president Essebsi, a secular figure, rejected an effort in 2015 by the justice minister to repeal articles in the penal code criminalising homosexuality.
The controversial equal-inheritance law presented towards the end of the parliament’s 2019 session by Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounis Party was shelved deliberately, Hammami said. Nidaa Tounis knew it wouldn’t get enough votes to pass the law even by its own MPs, he added.
Saied met with a Tunsian LGBQT (gay, lesbian, bi, queer and transsexual) NGO Mawjoudin recently, according to French news agency AFP, and told the group he was against the imprisonment of homosexual people without committing himself to decriminalisation.
“Saied is not more conservative than other candidates,” said Cherif. “He is speaking to the general conservatism of Tunisians, and it worked, it seems. But, of course, the international community want someone who ‘looks like us,’ and that’s definitely not the case with him.”
According to figures released by Sigma Conseil, an independent polling and research centre, 75,000 of Saied’s 2.8 million votes came from people who voted for the party of the anti-Islamist Abir Moussi and another 50,000 from those who voted for Karoui’s party in the parliamentary elections.
Approximately 30 per cent of his voters had abstained from voting in previous elections, it said. Like in the first round, the bulk of Saied’s voters were educated and aged between 18 and 44, it added.
Tunisians sent a powerful anti-establishment message when they voted for outsiders Saied and Karoui in the first round of the presidential elections last month.
Until early this week, Karoui, 56, who owns the Nessma TV station which promoted his political profile, was in prison on charges of tax evasion and money-laundering. He was released only days ahead of the vote to allow him to participate in a televised debate with Saied.
Karoui’s party, Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia), formed in June, came second in last week’s parliamentary elections, signalling the electorate’s rejection of the old political system and its main players.
“This election, which confronted a relatively peaceful, humble and well-regarded professor with a reputedly corrupt, flamboyant media mogul, saw many people voting in terms of good vs evil,” Cherif said.
Since 2011, Saied has been consistently vocal against that system, rejecting the transitional road map that followed Ben Ali’s ouster because he saw it as a foundation for the continuation of the same regime that Tunisians had revolted against in the uprising.
He called for boycotting the 2011 Constituent Assembly elections and the votes that followed. Tunisia, Saied argued eight years ago, needed a more representative mechanism to manage the transitional period and one that came from below and involved elected local council members.
This would be instead of the direct election of assembly members who had overseen the transitional period, he said.
Saied also called for a boycott of the 2014 elections, which he said were a continuation of the old political system and the bankrupt old political parties.
“Saied’s victory is seen a continuation of the revolutionary process that started in 2011 but was soon interrupted,” Hammami said.
The new resident of the Carthage Palace, the official residence of Tunisia’s president (which Saied has said he will not move into) will face a fragmented parliament struggling to form a coalition, produce a government and choose a prime minister.
The electorate has given him resounding legitimacy and the largest number of votes for any elected official since 2011, while slapping the political parties in the face, which might not necessarily work in his favour.
Tunisia’s president controls foreign and defence policy, governing alongside a prime minister chosen by parliament who has authority over domestic affairs.
It is unclear if Saied will attempt to interfere with the work of the government like his two predecessors, or if the government will attempt to limit his prerogatives, Cherif said.
If that happens, he might end up isolated because of the lack of a political constituency around him, he added.
“He is scaring foreign and local investors, as well as the establishment, because he has said he will reform or change everything. Whether he will really do this, or if he has the means to do so, remains to be seen,” Cherif concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.