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Robocop v Corleone: disgruntled Tunisians vote in presidential runoff

Tunisians are voting on Sunday in a runoff presidential election between a low-profile law professor and a charismatic media magnate who was released from prison earlier this week.

The Maghreb country, often held up as the lone success story of the Arab spring, appears set to successfully carry out its second-ever presidential elections, with an earlier round of voting winnowing the field from 26 candidates to the two self-styled outsiders, the lawyer Kais Saied and the businessman Nabil Karoui.

An exit poll released on Sunday night showed a decisive victory for Saied, who was the choice of 72% of those surveyed by the Emrhod Consulting group.

Analysts said the choice of the two candidates over better-known political faces, including many associated with the country’s revolution or with the old regime of the overthrown president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, reflected widespread discontent with the country’s ailing economy – a key factor that drove Tunisianson to the streets in 2011.

“The tremendous disappointment with the lack of economic reform is paramount on Tunisian voters’ minds,” said Safwan Masri, a professor of Middle Eastern and north African politics at Columbia University in New York.

“The fact that presidential candidates such as the country’s defence minister or its prime minister didn’t do well sends a strong message that ‘we’re done with you, we’re done with the establishment and their failed promises’.”

Turnout by 3:30pm local time was around 39%, the same as in the runoff elections on 15 September and much lower than the 64% of registered voters who cast their ballots in the presidential contest five years ago.

Some Tunisians nickname Saied, 61, “Robocop” for his stiff manner and dour presentation. They call Karoui, 56, a flamboyant tycoon who wears designer suits, “Michael Corleone”, a reference both to his suaveness and the corruption allegations that have dogged him for years.

The pair squared off in a rare television debate on Friday evening in which Saied – who is not a member of a political party and shunned mass rallies through his campaign – addressed the audience in classical Arabic while Karoui, speaking in the local dialect, propounded his campaign’s ambitious promises to help the poor.

Karoui has run the private television station Nessma since 2002, burnishing his charitable reputation in past years with a popular show in which he distributes appliances to needy families.

Saied, in contrast, was relative unknown in decades he spent teaching constitutional law at a university in Tunis until he retired in 2018 and launched his political campaign. His relative lack of charisma may be playing to his advantage, according to analysts, who say his appeal rests on the idea that he is incorruptible and sternly civic-minded.

He argues for scrapping the country’s parliamentary system in favour of a decentralised democratic model and is socially conservative, declaring his support for the death penalty and against a law currently under discussion that would distribute inheritances equally between men and women. He has spoken disparagingly of homosexuality and says he would seek to limit the work of foreign NGOs in the country.

Karoui was arrested on corruption charges on the eve of campaigning earlier this year in timing that many saw as a ploy to stem his popularity but which appeared to have backfired, enshrining his status as an outsider. He remains under investigation and cannot travel abroad.

But if he wins the runoff, Karoui would “receive immunity … and all the legal proceedings against him … will be suspended until the end of his mandate”, the constitutional law professor Salsabil Klibi told Agence France-Presse.

Tunisia has brushed close to chaos in the years since its revolution, as Islamist and secularist forces fought for control of the country. Its transition appeared most risky in 2013 after several leftist leaders were assassinated, allegedly by Islamic extremists, deepening the polarisation between the country’s political factions.

Yet it pulled back, largely due to the efforts of civil society groups (who were awarded the 2015 Nobel peace prize) and political elders who struck an improbable power-sharing agreement in 2016. The agreement has brought stability but also stalled reforms that might have helped to curb corruption or slim down the country’s bloated and sclerotic bureaucracy.

Saied is considered the favourite and has the backing of the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the largest share of parliament though fell far short of claiming a majority. Presidential power is also limited, and the significant reforms Saied advocates would require a two-thirds majority in parliament that will be difficult to build, said Masri.

“He is going to be an isolated leader because he does not have a political party,” he said. “There’s a chance he could be an irrelevant president.”

Karoui would also struggle to govern effectively if he wins on Sunday, said Youssef Cherif, the head of the Columbia Global Centres research institute in Tunis.

“The next president will therefore accept his constitutional position, that of a semi-ceremonial figure uniting the country in times of crisis, rather than a powerful strongman.”

Exit polls will be known by Sunday evening and a final result is likely to be declared within days.

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