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  • Supporters of detained presidential candidate and Tunisian media mogul Nabil Karoui react after unofficial results of the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, September 15, 2019.

    Supporters of detained presidential candidate and Tunisian media mogul Nabil Karoui react after unofficial results of the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, September 15, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 16 September 2019

If their lead holds, it would represent an earthquake in Tunisian politics and a strong rejection of successive governments that have struggled to improve living standards or end corruption.

Partial election results showed two political outsiders leading the race to become the Tunisian president Monday after exit polls showed them advancing to a second-round runoff next month that could upend politics in the north African country.

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With 27 percent of votes counted, the independent election commission said conservative law professor Kais Saied and detained media magnate Nabil Karoui were leading, with a moderate Islamist candidate slightly behind.

If their lead holds, it would represent an earthquake in Tunisian politics and a strong rejection of successive governments that have struggled to improve living standards or end corruption.

Karoui has for years used his Nessma television station and the charity he founded after his son died to present himself as a champion of the poor and a scourge of government, while his critics describe him as an ambitious, unscrupulous, populist.

He denies all claims of wrongdoing against him, including old tax evasion and money laundering charges for which he was detained late last month and spent election day in jail, calling them an undemocratic plot.

His wealth and massive electoral organization stand in sharp contrast to Saied, who spent so little on his campaign that Tunisians joke it cost no more than a coffee and packet of cigarettes.

Saied, who always speaks as if in a faculty meeting in didactic, ultra-correct formal Arabic, drives a shabby old car and wants to remain in his humble house if elected rather than move into the luxurious presidential palace at Carthage.

A social conservative who backs restoring the death penalty and rejects equal inheritance for men and women, Saied’s main focus is decentralization in a country where politicians in the capital have traditionally dominated.

At 9.30am, Saied was on 19 percent, Karoui was in second place with 15 percent and the moderate Islamist Ennahda party candidate Abdelfattah Mourou was on 13 percent, the official figures showed.

Saied on Sunday described his lead as “like a new revolution” in a radio interview, a reference to Tunisia’s 2011 uprising that brought in democracy and set off the Arab Spring revolts elsewhere.

Tunisia’s prime minister, two former prime ministers, the defense minister, and a former president were among the political heavyweights competing, along with Ennahda’s Mourou.

“We received the message sent by the Tunisian people,” Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said late Sunday, conceding defeat.

Banned before the revolution and once seen as the main anti-establishment force in Tunisia, Ennahda has been a big player in successive coalition governments caught between the public desire for more spending and a need to reduce debt.

Elections for parliament - which has more power than the president - are coming on Oct. 6 and an Ennahda official said the party was now focused on this and was still committed to sharing power with other major parties.

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