Photograph — Arabian Business

Following a full count of votes, Tunisia’s September 15 presidential election is heading to a second-round runoff between independent candidate Kais Saied and detained media mogul Nabil Karoui, the country’s electoral commission said Tuesday.

Coming from a range of backgrounds and political parties, 26 candidates competed in the election. The other 24 candidates included a former president, the defense minister, the prime minister, two former prime ministers and Islamic cleric from the Islamist party, Ennahda.

Saied and Karoui, who were described as ‘outsiders’ prior to the election won most votes with 18.4 percent and 15.6 percent respectively, beating major political leaders to advance to the next round. Islamist Ennahda candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, came in third with 12.9 percent.

Largely unknown before the election, Saied is a law professor and constitutional expert who ran what is regarded as a modest campaign with minimal publicity or funding. While Karoui is well-known, the owner of a major television news channel (Nessma TV) and the founder of a large charity that focuses on helping the Tunisian poor.

The media magnate is also a controversial figure. Some weeks before the election, Karoui, who built his appeal on charity campaigns, was detained over tax evasion and money laundering case brought in 2016 by a transparency watchdog. He denies all wrongdoing and his supporters say his arrest has traces of political manipulation.

The commission’s announcement yesterday confirmed exit polls released on Sunday evening and partial results issued throughout Monday, Reuters reports. Depending on potential appeals, the second round could be organized for October 6, the same day as legislative elections, or on October 13, the electoral commission revealed.

A rebuke of old guards and party systems

Sunday’s election in Tunisia is considered a sharp rebuke of the established political forces that have dominated since the 2011 revolution, which have failed to address the country’s economic challenges such as high unemployment and inflation. Reports show that unemployment is at 15 percent and the cost of living has risen by almost a third since 2016.

Both front runners were initially seen as outsiders, meaning the election results come as a shock to the ruling elites of Tunisia’s political sphere. “They’ve chosen a previously unknown professor of constitutional law. People only came to know him following the revolution when he appeared on talk shows and helped the public decipher the new constitution,” Al Jazeera‘s Stefanie Dekker said.

She added, “You then have Karoui who has been part of the political establishment but recently got out of the main party … and used his media to highlight his charity work” in the North African country.

According to a Tunisian political analyst, Mohamed Dhia Hammami, there is “disillusionment” with the existing political system based on parties. “We can understand it from the rise of independents and the low level of support that historical members of the opposition get. The disillusionment is not (just) with the ruling, it is with the institutions and the individuals,” Hammami said.

“The conclusion is that Tunisians are fed up with the political parties,” said Youssef Cherif, the Head of Columbia Global Centers Tunis. “It shows a big gap between the population and these political parties that were never able to mass together people and have concrete results.”

Sunday’s vote was Tunisia’s second free presidential election since the 2011 revolution that overthrew the country’s longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. His surprise removal triggered a series of mass protests across the Middle East, an uprising now known as the Arab Spring.

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