Robot Man Battles TV Mogul in Showdown for Tunisia’s Presidency

Jihen Laghmari

(Bloomberg) -- Tunisians are deciding Sunday between two unconventional presidential candidates, each with a starkly different vision for the Arab Spring’s birthplace, after soundly rejecting political heavyweights they blame for failing to better their lives.

The run-off ballot is between controversial media mogul Nabil Karoui, who has emerged from a weeks-long prison stint to go toe-to-toe with Kais Saied, a stern law professor whose low-key youth-driven campaign saw him win last month’s first round.

The battle between the two outsiders has become the clearest sign yet of Tunisia’s raging discontent with the political establishment, eight years after a revolt that sparked turmoil across the Middle East. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the final results are due by Oct. 15.

The aversion was underlined by the results of last week’s legislative vote, in which no bloc -- including the moderate Islamist Ennahda party long seen as the most organized political force -- managed to secure a majority. That could mean a prolonged struggle to form a coalition government.

Building Bridges

That the three elections, including Sunday’s run-off, are being held in such a short span and with minimal difficulties speaks to the solid democratic gains Tunisia has made since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster. But the celebration largely stopped there, as many of the country’s 11.5 million people argue that nine successive governments have failed to improve their opportunities. Unemployment remains above 15%.

The president has the role of elder statesman with a say in foreign affairs, security and defense, balanced by the powerful parliament. But voters are also looking for someone who can help end the political bickering that’s stymied efforts to rebuild the economy.

Change and integrity are what Rim Maaroufi, a 22-year-old student, says she found in Saied.

“He is conservative in his ideas, but I’m not worried that he’ll change the lifestyle of the country,” she said after casting her vote in the Ariana district of the capital, Tunis. “He’s a man of law and will respect the laws of the state.”

Both Karoui and Saied have appealed to the will of the people, promising to pull Tunisia out of its post-revolution malaise, with some echoes of the populist wave that’s roiled global politics.

‘Spirit of Change’

Constitutional law expert Saied, 61, whose composed, unemotional speaking style earned him the nickname ‘Robot Man,’ is promising a wholesale restructuring of Tunisian politics, expanding parliament to deepen the sense of representation, especially outside major cities.

How a Professor Upset Tunisian Politics With Help of Angry Youth

Saied has “brought back the spirit of change” that once animated the revolution, and has managed to bring together an unusual spectrum of Islamists, secularists and leftists, said political analyst Boulababa Salem.

Yet the professor has also faced criticism for his more socially conservative views, including on women’s inheritance rights, leading to accusations he’s a closet Islamist. He denies that.

Meanwhile, Karoui, the 56-year-old owner of Nessma TV, has built himself up as a champion of the poor. His charity foundation has been dubbed ‘the Pasta Party’ due to its distribution of food, medical help and domestic appliances to some of Tunisia’s neediest communities.

Challenging Status Quo

But corruption allegations, highlighted by a watchdog three years ago, have threatened to derail his bid. Karoui was arrested in late August, shortly after police issued an arrest warrant on money laundering and tax evasion charges; he competed in the first round while in jail.

Released last Wednesday, he’s awaiting a date for any trial. Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia party calls the accusations an attempt to quash a challenger to the status quo.

In a televised debate with Saied on Friday, Karoui described himself as a liberal businessman committed to social freedoms and with the savvy to attract foreign investment. He said addressing poverty will tackle the root causes of extremist violence in Tunisia, where there have been sporadic militant attacks on tourist sites.

For all their outsider credentials, both candidates will have to attract people who’ve previously supported Tunisia’s main parties. After Saied’s Sept. 15 victory as an independent, he was endorsed by Ennahda.

That, however, could galvanize some of Tunisia’s more staunch secularists behind Karoui, whose party has a fierce rival in Ennahda.

At least one positive has been the nation’s stirring from political apathy, according to analyst Mohamed Yousfi. “Tunisians, who followed the debate intensively, have regained their interest,” he said.

(Updates with voter comment in seventh 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, Tarek El-Tablawy, Michael Gunn

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