Jailed Tunisian presidential candidate campaigns on ‘war against poverty’

Karoui, perhaps more than any other candidate, has resonated with Tunisia’s poor and rural populations.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Electoral posters of Tunisian presidential candidates Nabil Karoui (up), and Youssef Chahed, are pictured along a road in the capital Tunis on September 7. (AFP)
Electoral posters of Tunisian presidential candidates Nabil Karoui (up), and Youssef Chahed, are pictured along a road in the capital Tunis on September 7. (AFP)

TUNIS - Media magnate and Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui’s campaign team unveiled an electoral platform prioritising eradication of poverty after years of economic stagnation.

Karoui, who owns the influential Nessma TV channel and operates a popular charity drive in neglected regions of Tunisia, is a presumed front-runner in the election but his imprisonment August 23 on charges of money laundering and tax evasion threw his bid into jeopardy.

On September 3, an appeals court denied Karoui’s bid to be released from jail but Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections has ruled he remains eligible to run for office -- even if imprisoned -- because he has not been legally banned from doing so.

Karoui, 56, will face off against 25 other candidates, including Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi and Ennahda Movement Vice-President Abdelfattah Mourou, in the September 15 election.

Other candidates include university law professor Kais Saied, Free Destourian Party President Abir Moussi, businesswoman Selma Elloumi Rekik and Democratic Current party founder Mohamed Abbou.

Karoui, perhaps more than any other candidate, has resonated with Tunisia’s poor and rural populations. For three years, he provided aid to the regions through his Khalil Tounes Foundation, making him a household name and gaining significant popularity.

Karoui’s rivals fear him as a talented populist who cast himself as an opponent of the political establishment.

However, while detailing the candidate’s vision, Karoui’s aides gave no indication he was running on a populist message or challenging the political mainstream, instead focusing on his “war on poverty.” They did describe Karoui as a "political prisoner" suffering a "grave injustice" at the hands of political rivals.

"Nabil Karoui is at the hearts of the Tunisians and the ones who are in jail are his adversaries,” Karoui’s wife Salwa told his backers.

The most recent opinion polls put Karoui ahead of other presidential contenders. His Qalb Tounes party also polled ahead of other major parties in the parliamentary race, including the Islamist Ennahda and Chahed's Tahya Tounes party.

Yadh Elloumi, a senior Qalb Tounes official, said the two rival parties used the judiciary, police and other state institutions as weapons against political opponents, such as Karoui.

"The Ministry of Justice has been transformed into a ministry of injustice,” said Elloumi. “It is the ministry of Bhiri,” he added in reference to senior Ennahda official and former Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri. “This is a fact, not suspicion.”

Bhiri and other Ennahda leaders dismissed the allegations and insist the judiciary acted independently. Tunisia’s government, including the Interior Ministry, contends that Karoui’s case has been dealt with objectively, based on an investigation that began three years ago.

Karoui’s imprisonment was not the first obstacle to his presidential ambitions.

In June, Tunisia’s parliament passed an amendment to the country’s electoral law that would have precluded Karoui from running. The measure, which was approved by Ennahda deputies and their secularist allies backing Chahed, would have barred candidates who benefit from "charitable associations" or foreign funding in the year before an election.

However, President Beji Caid Essebsi did not sign the measure into law before he died, allowing Karoui to run.

Sadok Jabnoun, a member of Qalb Tounes’s political bureau, said: "Karoui is the victim of a grievous injustice because he is not on equal footing with other contenders as he is remanded in jail.

“We hoped the elections would assert Tunisia’s image as a country that is on an irreversible path of democracy. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the jailing of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui.”

Jabnoun said Karoui’s platform was “a new vision” that would address Tunisia’s “urgent and immediate needs” and provide an “overall view of sustained development for 20 years."

"His vision is based on the idea of a fair and responsible state conscious of its duties to answer the urgent needs of the poor and the middle class like healthcare, transport and other basic social services,” said Jabnoun.

"The absence of an efficient state in recent years has caused services to deteriorate.  That is why Karoui offers a policy of social rescue as part of his vision of a just and active state.”

The fight against poverty is central to Karoui’s platform, his aides said. He plans to address the most urgent needs of the poor, including accessible drinking water and quality education, “in the first three months of his presidency.”

With his programme, "no family will have a problem with drinking water and no children will be left behind," Jabnoun said. "We offer goals and targets to be achieved, not only promises. That is the difference between Karoui and the other candidates.”

The programme, Jabnoun assured, would be “implemented and activated from the first day.”

"(Karoui) has a programme that will make Tunisia a business ready country. His programme constitutes a break with failure and weak economic growth. His programme is one of a strong growth from an economy of higher added value," he said.

"We are ready to govern and face the challenges of governing. We are ready to deal with the situation. Tunisia is suffering from eight years of structural crisis. Enough is enough."

Samira Chaouachi, another Qalb Tounes official, said Karoui is very skilled in “economic management.”

“He has an impressive body of experience in successful economic enterprises. He entered into the adventure of business and he succeeded," she said. "He is not a beginner who is dangling promises. He has a vision (to address) burning issues that cannot wait.”

"He is not seeking a job in the state but he feels he has a duty to all Tunisians, whether inside the country or abroad," she said.