Tunisian jurist, jailed businessman formally advance to presidential run-off

Tuesday 17/09/2019
Members of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) announce the official results of the presidential election during a press conference in Tunisia's capital Tunis on September 17. (AFP)
Members of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) announce the official results of the presidential election during a press conference in Tunisia's capital Tunis on September 17. (AFP)

TUNIS – Tunisia’s election authority confirmed Tuesday that law professor Kais Saied and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui would advance to a presidential run-off after they beat establishment candidates in the first round of voting.

The two political outsiders with no government experience shocked Tunisia’s centrist establishment and the Islamist Ennahda party with their first-round victory, which analysts said reflected voters’ growing disillusionment with a political class seen as out of touch with their needs.

Since Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, citizens have been hard hit by increasing unemployment and inflation, on top of a rising cost of living.

The two leading presidential candidates, who are vying to replace the late President Beji Caid Essebsi after his death in office two months ago, said they were ready to usher in a new era for the country.

"Tunisians have written a new and brilliant page in the history of Tunisia," Saied said after the first exit polls showed him as in the lead. "I am an independent, but I am ready to work with all parties to build a new Tunisia."

He has yet to disclose his exact programme for meeting the main challenges faced by the country, including its economic slowdown, high unemployment rate and lingering security threat, including from extremists. 

Karoui, who remained in jail as official results were being tallied, wrote on Twitter that by voting him on to the next round of elections, Tunisians had “punished those who have sought to steal your votes by throwing me in jail.”

"With your trust to choose me among the two first candidates in the elections among 26 contenders you voiced strongly that your against 'injustice, poverty and exclusiveness. You said 'yes to a fair state, yes to a better future, yes to hope," Karoui wrote.

"Your message is clear and is heard across the whole world," he added.

Saied won 18.4% of the vote while Karoui took 15.6%, defeating all other candidates, including the representative of the Islamist Ennahda party, Interim Parliament Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou, who finished third with 12.9% of the vote.

Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi won 10.7% to lead the centrist crowd, ahead of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed who received just 7.4%.

About 3 million of Tunisia’s 7 million registered electorate cast ballots, ISIE President Nabil Bafoun said, 20% lower than in 2014 presidential elections.

The ISIE said its observers recorded many infractions and violations during the process but none significant enough to impact the results.

EU election observers said they were satisfied with the calm and well-structured process that took place on short notice.

“(The ISIE) carried out preparations in an efficient way, despite a reduced calendar due to early presidential elections," said Fabio Massimo Castaldo, head of the EU mission.  

Questions remained about the status of Karoui, who has been jailed since August 23 on charges of money laundering and tax evasion tied to a 2014 investigation.

ISIE officials said that Karoui retained all his “political rights” as a candidate because he has not yet been convicted of a crime or barred from office from running.

“A citizen can only be barred from competing in elections when he is sentenced to 10 or more years in prison with additional legal stipulations that he is stripped of his electoral rights,” said ISIE official Tlil Msasri at a press conference in Tunis.

However, if Karoui is convicted before the election date he could be stripped of his standing, the official said. Jurist regard such a prospect as very unlikely as any definitive sentencing after three levels of appeals would take months. The second round would take place at the latest on October 13. 

If Karoui wins, he added, “we will announce his victory and submit its authenticity to the parliament, which will summon him to take the oath as president after the legislative authority interacts with the judiciary in the issue of Karoui.”

"The ISIE has authority over the elections without interference from  the judiciary or political spheres," he added.

Some election observers had raised concerns that Karoui was unable to campaign on equal footing with other candidates or participate in televised debates that featured all other major contenders.

Instead, Karoui’s supporters, led by his wife Salwa Smaoui, ran the campaign on his behalf while he remained behind bars.