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Tunisia elections

Contest heats up in Tunisian run-off presidential election between Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui

Tunisians ink their fingers after voting in parliamentary elections, October 6, 2019
Tunisians ink their fingers after voting in parliamentary elections, October 6, 2019 FETHI BELAID / AFP
Text by: Jean-Jacques Cornish
3 min

Tunisians go to the polls on Sunday for a run-off election to decide on the successor to President Beji Caid Essebsi who died in office this past July. The contest is between two outsiders who beat off the heavyweight establishment figures among the two dozen other contestants.


Kais Saied, a conservative lawyer and professor, Nabil Karoui, a television mogul, are the choice of an electorate disillusioned with the performance of the traditional leaders.

Neither managed anything near an outright win, however. Saied won 18.4 percent of the vote with Karoui palming 15.6 percent.

Parliamentary elections

In parliamentary elections last week, voters gave the nod to the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party and Karoui’s Qalb Tounes - the Heart of Tunisia, which came in second.

With a turnout of only 42 percent of the seven million registered voters, Ennahda won 52 of the 217 parliamentary seats, well short of a majority.

It has pledged not to enter into an alliance with Qalb Tounes, so many expect the coming weeks will bring forward interesting coalition building.

Nabil Karoui

Karoui was released on bail last week, having been jailed since 27 August on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

It was feared his incarceration would jeopardize the credibility of the elections which, according to local and international observers, underpinned Tunisian democracy.

It is not clear whether 54-year-old Karoui will contest the outcome of the election in which he had barely two days to campaign.

The populist and charismatic self-made businessman has been dubbed Karoui Macaroni because of the money and food he has doled out to Tunisians – 15 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Karoui recognised his strength lies attracting the poor and the one fifth of Tunisians who are feeling the pinch from unemployment, rising prices and a stagnating economy.

His campaign suffered a blow when it emerged he had bought the services of a Canadian lobbyist company to secure a meeting with US President Donald Trump and others.

It is illegal under Tunisian law to get help or finance from abroad.

To compound matters, the chief executive of the lobbyist group is a former Israeli intelligence operative

The head of the observer team from the Johannesburg-based Electoral Commission for a Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EIZA), former Mauritian president Cassam Uteem, commended the orderliness of the elections but called, in the name of fairness for Karoui to be allowed to participate fully.

Kais Saied

Saied also expressed disquiet about his opponent being jailed. He opted against taking advantage of this and declined to campaign for the run-off poll.

The 62 year-old, who opts to speak publicly in classical Arabic rather than Tunisian dialect, has the support of Ennahda.

The backing of that party’s machine and funding from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be a useful for him.

In supporting a man who rejects the status quo, Tunisians have a man who favour the return of the death penalty and criminalizing homosexuality.

Saied says his wife will not become first lady if he is elected and that he will continue to live in his moderate home rather than move into the presidential palace.

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