Tunisia's voters deal mighty blow to establishment, pick outsiders: preliminary results

Both Said and Karoui are expected to advance to a second-round run-off by October 13.
Monday 16/09/2019
Supporters of Tunisia's jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui (not pictued) celebrate in front of his headquarters in the Tunisian capital Tunis on September 15. (AFP)
Supporters of Tunisia's jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui (not pictued) celebrate in front of his headquarters in the Tunisian capital Tunis on September 15. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian voters, frustrated by a sluggish economy and perceived widespread corruption, dealt a severe blow to the country’s establishment presidential candidates, selecting two outsiders to advance to the second round of voting, exit polls and preliminary official results indicate.

The upset victory by university law professor Kais Saied and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui, who faces charges of money laundering and tax evasion charges, toppled both the Islamists and their secularist allies that have led government coalitions for nine consecutive years, throwing Tunisia into unchartered waters.

The Islamist Ennahda party’s leaders had repeatedly bragged that they would stay in power for up to “50 years.”

“Tunisians will never change their faith,"  they said.

But with over half the votes counted from the September 15 poll, Ennahda’s candidate, Interim Parliament Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou had garnered just 12.9%, behind Karoui's 15.5% and Said's 18.9%.

The preliminary official figures from Tunisia's High Authority for Elections (ISIE) showed that Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi, an independent candidate backed by powerful businessmen, especially in his native Sahel region, the secularist Nidaa Tounes party and the powerful Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT) that claims to have 1 million members, had received just 10.1%.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who was assailed by other candidates because of the government’s poor economic record, was was at 7.4% of the vote, slightly higher than the 7.2% by writer Safi Said, who campaigned on his own meagre budget,

The numbers were in line with exit polling announced by Sigma Conseil Sunday evening. 

Ennahda officials had cast doubt on the initial Sigma poll estimates, insisting their candidate would come second behind Said, keeping his chance of reaching the presidency alive.

But Mourou's projected outcome was in line with recent straw polls, which showed Ennahda receiving between 9-12% support, a sharp decline from some 20% support last year.

Mourou's campaign chief Samir Dilou said "the figures we have show a different picture from that of the exit polls announced by Sigma. Our candidate won a bigger share of the vote."

"The results I have from polling stations show the candidate Mourou advancing to the second round behind Kaies Said," said senior Ennahda official Rafik Abdessalem, a former foreign minister.

Chahed did not challenge the results, saying the poor performance of the two leading candidates from the so-called modernist and centrist family -- Chahed and Zbidi — was the bitter fruit the secularists had harvested from years of bruising infighting.

"The divisions and splits of the democratic camp led to this result of the presidential elections," said Chahed after preliminary results were released.

"All parties shoulder the political responsibility in these results, which rob the democratic family of having a candidate in the second round," he added.

Chahed pointed to low voter turnout as a "negative indication" as he urged secularists to unify forces ahead of parliamentary elections October 6.

"The democratic family must come together unified for the crucial elections of October 6,” he said. “We have no alternative as a democratic family but to close our ranks so that Tunisia wins and we win," added Chahed.

Voter turnout was 45%, about 20% lower than in presidential elections in 2014 when polarisation between secularists and Islamists encouraged each camp to get out and vote.

This time around, outsiders Said and Karoui who have been criticised for making what many say are unlikely promises to voters, stormed from behind both camps to shock the political establishment.

"Kaies Saied and Nabil Karoui making it to the second round. What a political earthquake jolting Tunisia," wrote Tunisia’s main daily Alchourouk in a front page editorial.

A low turnout could have given Ennahada and rival secularist parties a greater chance of catapulting their candidates into the top spots as they control well-funded organisations that can campaign more efficiently and help mobilise more voters.  

Said, shortly after the release of Sigma’s exit poll that showed he was leading, said his “win brings a big responsibility to change frustration to hope... it is a new step in Tunisian history... it is like a new revolution."

Karoui, from jail, thanked “the great Tunisian people" for  standing against " injustice and despotism.”

"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," he wrote on Twitter.

"You punished those who have sought to steal your votes by throwing me in jail without a court judgement and to bar me from campaigning.”

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

Tunisia's election authority has kept Karoui in the race despite his imprisonment because he has not yet been convicted and barred from running. In the event he is convicted before the second-round vote, the watchdog says, he would be replaced with the next leading candidate.

Many analysts said the prospect of Said and Karoui finishing in the top spots was a “catastrophic” scenario because Said lacks government experience or ties to the establishment while Karoui faces accusations of corruption.

The two top candidates’ projected victories were attributed to widespread frustration with Islamists and their secularist allies, whose successive governments throughout the past nine years have failed to adequately address economic hardship or bring stability.

Analysts said Kais Said and Karoui’s success would likely have an impact in parliamentary elections October 6 and could further political instability.

Said has no formal experience in politics but is often turned to for law-related analysis, including on the constitution approved in 2014.  He draws support from many conservatives due to his views on social issues and smooth formal Arabic. Many of Said's supporters are also youth.

Said’s lack of government experience gives him a “clean slate” in the eyes of many Tunisians who are disillusioned with perceived corrupt and incompetent political figures. However, his lack of experience has also drawn criticism from those who say Tunisia has seen enough experimentation and needs steady hands.

Said has come out against equality between men and women in inheritance, citing religious texts. The law expert has also ambiguously claimed that Tunisia is a "moral entity that is neither a civic no religious state" in a bid to please both nationalists and secularists as he garners support from disillusioned youth, including student activists.

Kaorui, meanwhile, draws his support largely from poor and rural districts who are betting on his “war against poverty.” Much of his popularity is thought to be due to an aid scheme organised by his charity group and publicised by his Nessma TV channel since 2017. His supporters have been accused of distributing free pasta to voters in order to gain support, prompting some of his rivals such as Chahed to dub his part the “Macaroni Party.”