Fed Up With Politicians, Tunisians Back Outsiders for Presidency

Jihen Laghmari

(Bloomberg) -- A low-profile law professor and a controversial TV personality looked set to compete in a run-off election to become Tunisia’s next president -- a resounding rejection of the status quo in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Interim figures show Kais Saied, a constitutional law expert who’s supported by some of Tunisia’s disenchanted youth, in the lead after securing 18.8% of ballots counted from Sunday’s presidential election. Nabil Karoui, the owner of a TV channel who’s competing from prison, has 15.7%. The election commission gave the figures after tallying 89% of votes.

Authorities were due to announce preliminary results at midday Tuesday, before pushing it back to 2 p.m.

“There is anger, hatred and resentment of the people against the political elites, whether ruling or opposition,” said Sadok Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst. Many voters believe the “elites betrayed the people and didn’t represent them,” so they chose the insurgent candidates, he said.

Victory for an outsider is a serious defeat for Tunisia’s political establishment ahead of legislative elections next month. While the North African nation has emerged from its uprising with a vibrant democracy, two-thirds of the population say the government has failed to improve their lives. Since 2011, it has been hobbled by political infighting and sporadic militant attacks that have sapped the economy.

From two-dozen diverse contenders, only four -- Karoui, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Ennahda party deputy leader Abdelfattah Mourou and Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi -- had been seen as front-runners. Mourou is currently in third place, with 12.8% of votes counted. If no one secures over 50% of ballots, the leading two will compete in a second round, likely in October.

Saied, who’s 61 and ran as an independent, has come to be nicknamed ‘Robot Man’ thanks to his rapid, fact-filled speeches during recent debates. He’d had little media attention until Sunday evening, when an exit poll showed him on course for victory and he declared a “new stage in Tunisia’s history.”

Some of the country’s youth say they’ve found inspiration in this austere figure, who campaigned on a platform of decentralizing authority to local communities to empower people.

“Today the youth have regained their confidence via Kais Saied,” said Rayan Ben Souf, a 20-year-old student shopping in Tunis’ central market on Monday. “He is against the system.”

The Robot Man’s success was a surprise to many, though an opinion poll earlier in the year before some of the established candidates announced their runs suggested he might do well. The placing of Karoui, who ran while incarcerated, was more expected.

A self-proclaimed champion of the poor, the 56-year-old has gained fame for shows on his Nessma TV channel in which he distributed charity to Tunisia’s most needy. He was arrested last month on allegations of money-laundering dating back to 2016, which he denies. His Heart of Tunisia party calls it an attempt to quell an electoral upstart.

The same June poll suggested Karoui might take votes from the established parties, including Nidaa Tounes, to which former President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July, belonged. Parliament failed in a subsequent bid to pass legislation that would have disqualified candidates with links to charities -- a step that would likely have affected him.

A conviction would rule him out of the race, but no trial has yet been set.

“Tunisians want to break with the old system,” said analyst Hammami, comparing some of the circumstances to those that led to the U.S. election of Donald Trump. “Populists have become an alternative to the traditional political elites.”

Turnout also signaled political disillusionment in the nation that’s sandwiched between Libya and Algeria, and slightly bigger than the U.S. state of Georgia. About 45% of Tunisia’s roughly 7 million registered voters cast ballots, according to the election commission, down from around 60% in 2014’s presidential contest.

(Updates with latest count figures in second paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at jlaghmari@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Michael Gunn, Paul Abelsky

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