Tunisia elects new president on Sunday: The 'professor' vs the media mogul

Yara Hilal , Sunday 13 Oct 2019

The two candidates conservative law professor Kais Saied and business tycoon Nabil Karoui (AFP)

Tunisians cast votes three times in the past two months in presidential and parliamentary elections. On Sunday, they will be voting in the presidential run-off elections.

The public mood, eight years after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, is obviously leaning towards those with little history in political life.

From the 26 candidates who competed during the first round of the presidential elections in September, a law professor, Kais Saied,  61, and a media mogul, Nabil Karoui, 56 made it to the run-offs.

The presidential winner will succeed Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July at the age of 92.

In the first round, Saied took 18.4 percent of the votes, while Karoui received 15.6 percent. The presidential candidate of  the Islamist Ennahda Party, Abdelfattah Mourou, came in third with 12.9 percent of the votes.

Meanwhile, in the parliamentary elections, Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia Party came second (38 seats) after Ennahda Party 52 seats out of a total of 217 seats.

Ennahda, which won 17 less seats than those it earned during the 2014 parliamentary race, backs Saied.

This provides further evidence of the growing interest in backing new political forces, especially amid rising divisions and tensions among the secular forces that built Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes.

Both Saied and Karoui speak about themselves as political outsiders, though there are obvious differences between them.

Karoui was detained in August ahead of the first round of presidential elections on charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

on Wednesday, an appeals court freed the business tycoon, pending investigations.

Tunisia’s electoral commission had warned that Karoui's imprisonment could negatively affected his chances in getting in touch with voters, which could annul the results. Tunisia’s interim president Mohammed Ennaceur also cautioned last week that the credibility of the elections was damaged by Karoui's detention.

The election-observing institutions shared similar standpoints. 

The way the judicial process will be run is yet unclear, especially in case he was elected president. If he Karoui loses in the runoff, according to his lawyers, he will challenge the result in court on the basis of being denied an equal opportunity to campaign for himself.

Some critics of Karoui accuse him of being corrupt. However, for his supporters, Karoui represents the forces of secularism and liberalism and is also a staunch backer of the poor.

Karoui’s Nessma TV and charity activities have significantly helped him  win support among the poorer sects of Tunisia.

Nessma TV had played a key role in mobilizing voters’ support for the secular parties during Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in 2014.

Unlike Saied, Karoui vowed to increase the powers of the president in Tunisia, holding the parliamentary system accountable for "paralyzing the country."

On the other hand, the independent candidate Saied — who stopped campaigning last week in respect of the notion of equal opportunities — had a weak campaign with very limited funding and media exposure.

The legal scholar presents himself as someone who defends the principles of the 2011 revolution of Tunisia, slamming party politics and stressing the need to decentralise power.

Described by his backers as the “professor”, Saied is a politically conservative figure. He became popular through his regular TV comments on the constitution-drafting process in 2014. He is pro-death penalty, an opponent of homosexuality, and calls for a law that punishes unmarried couples for the public display of affection.

Moreover, though many see that Saied is not a supporter of political Islam, and having vowed to defend women's rights, he still rejects recent changes in Tunisia’s inheritance law which establishes equal rights between men and women in inheritance matters.

Meanwhile, Karoui portrays himself as a “modernist liberal” and has promised to implement neoliberal economic policies. “My programme is the total opening of the economy with the reforms necessary to attract foreign investment,” he said.

The race for presidency in Tunisia comes amid social and economic challenges facing the country, including high unemployment, especially among the youth, deteriorating public services, hiking prices and harsh austerity measures passed under a programme signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Moreover, Tunisia's tourism sector, a major source of income for the North African country, has not been able to recover from a string of attacks on tourist destinations in recent years.

On Friday, many Tunisians closely watched a televised debate between Saied and Karoui. However, many found the encounter did not properly tackle major concerns of the Tunisians, mainly those about the security, economy and inheritance law.

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