Tunisians voted Sunday in a presidential runoff pitting a conservative academic against a media magnate fresh out of jail, reflecting the country’s shifting post-revolution political landscape.
The political newcomers – one dubbed Tunisia’s “Berlusconi” the other nicknamed “Robocop” – swept aside the old guard in the first round, highlighting voter anger over a stagnant economy, joblessness and poor public services in the cradle of the Arab Spring.
“There is a lot of unemployment, so we need a president who works hard for the economy,” said Ibdisseme Adaili, who cast her ballot in the capital Tunis. Adding controversy and suspense to the contest, presidential contender Nabil Karoui only walked free on Wednesday, having spent more than a month behind bars on suspicion of money-laundering.
The poll, Tunisia’s second free presidential elections since the 2011 revolt, follows the death of president Beji Caid Essebsi in July. Voting is due to finish at 6:00 pm local time with exit polls expected on Sunday evening and official results by Tuesday.
In one polling station, voters said they were divided between “the one who will apply the law” and the one “who helps the poor,” referring to a charity television show that boosted Karoui’s popularity.
“Today is a chance to recover our Tunisia, the modern Tunisia that is for women… not the Tunisia that frightens us,” said Karoui after casting his vote in Tunis. The 56-year-old business tycoon and media mogul portrays himself as a bulwark against political Islam, which he accuses his rival Kais Saied of supporting.
Saied, a constitutional law expert, called for Tunisians “to make a choice today in complete freedom”. “You have created a new concept of revolution, let your conscience guide you and you will win your sovereignty,” said the 61-year-old independent candidate.
Saied campaigned upon the values of the 2011 revolution, based on opposition to westernised and corrupt elites, and in favour of radical decentralisation.
Some Tunisians organised car-sharing and free transport for students who have to travel far to their hometowns to cast their ballots.
“I am doing it out of love for my country. I support the one who embodies hope for Tunisia,” said taxi driver Bakri who was offering free rides to Saied supporters between Tunis and the coastal city of Nabeul.
At the Ban Alouia terminal in Tunis, 35-year-old Reda joined the crowds to catch a bus to his hometown of Kabylie, 450 kilometres (280 miles) away.
“It is important to vote… it is a duty. The two candidates are very different. One could help the country advance, the other sink it,” he said.
The runoff outcome remains uncertain, with a ban on opinion polls, but Karoui received a boost with his newly formed party, Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunis), coming second in legislative elections a week earlier.
Saied topped the first round in the presidential election, held on September 15, with 18.4 percent of votes, while Karoui followed with 15.6 percent. Nearly half of eligible voters cast their ballots in that round.
Officials said turnout in the runoff was 39.20 percent by 1430 GMT, just two and a half hours before polls closed. An election official, Nabil Baffoun, said it seemed final turnout “will be better” than the 49 percent recorded for the first round.
While the candidates are both seen as anti-establishment figures, the contrast between them is sharp, with Saied nicknamed “Robocop” for his rigid and austere manner. A social conservative, he has defended the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.
Saied taught at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences for nearly two decades. He launched an unorthodox low-cost election campaign that saw him shun mass rallies and instead canvass door-to-door.
Karoui presents himself as a candidate for the poor and the appeal of the flamboyant candidate, who always appears in designer suits, stems largely from his media empire and philanthropic activity.
After the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Nessma TV channel that Karoui founded turned from entertainment programming towards news, becoming one of Tunisia’s largest private broadcasters.
His arrest in the run-up to the election cemented his status as an outsider — despite being a longtime key supporter of Essebsi, whose death on July 25 brought forward the polls. Karoui says the allegations against him are politically motivated.
If he wins the runoff, Karoui will receive immunity “and all the legal proceedings against him… will be suspended until the end of his mandate”, constitutional law professor Salsabil Klibi told reporters.
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