Tunisians yesterday began voting for a new president in the decisive second-round run-off of an election in which they have spurned traditional candidates in favor of a media mogul and a retired law professor who wants to remake democracy.
Media mogul Nabil Karoui was only released from detention on Wednesday after spending most of the campaign behind bars awaiting a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion. He denies all accusations of wrongdoing.
Enigmatic former constitutional law professor Kais Saied spent almost no money on his campaign and is regarded by his supporters as a humble man of principle, while his critics have attacked his conservative social views and backing by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda.
Yesterday’s vote was the third national election in five weeks, following the first-round of the presidential last month, in which Saied took 18.4 percent and Karoui 15.6 percent in a crowded field of 26, and a parliamentary election a week ago.
The presidential election had to be held earlier than scheduled following the July death in office of president Beji Caid Essebsi.
Low turnout and a rejection of established politicians and parties in both polls revealed dissatisfaction with Tunisian politics eight years after a revolution that brought in democracy and inspired the “Arab spring.”
However, whichever president and prime minister emerges from the election season, they will face the same challenges that have bedeviled all recent coalitions — chronic unemployment, high inflation and demands by foreign lenders for unpopular spending cuts.
The choice for voters between two quirky candidates who have never held political office has made for an unprecedented election.
The only thing the men have in common is their outsider status.
Karoui campaigned on promises to fight the poverty that has hobbled Tunisia since its 2011 pro-democracy uprising.
Detractors dubbed him “Nabil Macaroni” because his party distributes pasta to the poor.
He embraced it: “Nabil Macaroni, and proud to be,” Radio Mosaique quoted him as saying on Friday.
During an unprecedented TV debate, Karoui promised to combat extremist violence by “attacking at its roots” and raising economic prospects in struggling provinces that are fertile recruiting grounds for the Islamic State group and other extremists.
A self-proclaimed modernist, he said he would seek partnerships with companies such as Microsoft, Google and Netflix to create jobs, and holds up women as pillars of society.
Saied has drawn in support with his Mr Clean image and by promising to rehaul the “pyramid of power” to give poorer provinces and youth more decisionmaking power.
He sits poker-straight, his blank visage hiding any visible sign of emotion, and speaks in a staccato style — and in literary Arabic, a tongue inaccessible to many in Tunisia’s rural interior.
Firmly conservative, he opposes equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons, arguing that the issue is decided by the Quran.
Despite the backing of Ennahdha, which won last week’s parliamentary elections, he describes himself as politically neutral.
“I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life,” he said.
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