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  • A woman casts her vote at a polling station during a second round runoff of a presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia October 13, 2019.

    A woman casts her vote at a polling station during a second round runoff of a presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia October 13, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 13 October 2019
Opinion

Media mogul Nabil Karoui and his opponent, retired law professor Kais Saied, beat a crowded field of 24 rivals in the first round of voting last month.

Tunisians were choosing Sunday between two political outsiders to be their next president, in a free election that has seen voters ditch top politicians after years of declining living standards following a 2011 revolution.

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Media mogul Nabil Karoui and his opponent, retired law professor Kais Saied, beat a crowded field of 24 rivals in the first round of voting last month.

Tunisians are struggling with unemployment of 15 percent, inflation of 6.8 percent, declining public services and pressure from foreign lenders to cut deficits and rein in large state debt.

Supporters of Karoui see him as a professionally successful, conservative, secular champion of Tunisia’s poor.

Backers of Saied, who has barely campaigned in the race, see him as humble and principled, willing to take on Tunisia’s moneyed elite and promising electoral reforms.

An international election monitoring team in Tunisia raised concern on Sunday about the fairness of the vote, however, because TV station owner Karoui was held in detention during much of the run-up to the election.

Karoui was detained in August pending a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion, accusations he denies and spent the first round of the vote and much of the campaign behind bars before his release on Wednesday.

“This is not business as usual,” said Les Campbell, joint leader of the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute observer mission in Tunisia.

“The playing field was disrupted and that was a significant factor in the election,” the electoral monitor said.

At a polling booth in the upmarket Lac area of northern Tunis where Karoui also voted, 21-year-old student Najwa Salmi said she had traveled from her university in the city of Sousse to elect the next head of state.

“We want a president who respects his powers... we don’t need one who will bring in his family,” she said, without saying who she would vote for.

Tunisia’s president has less direct control over policy than the prime minister and a separate legislative election held last week produced a deeply fractured parliament with no clear path to a new governing coalition.

Sunday’s vote is the third national election in five weeks, following the first round of the presidential vote in September, in which Saied took 18.4 percent and Karoui 15.6 percent, and a parliamentary election a week ago.

With a stiff public manner and a formal style, Saied has won over younger voters despite spending virtually nothing on his campaign with his focus on political reform.

Karoui’s unlicensed Nessma TV has for several years been broadcasting him distributing charity in the poorest parts of Tunisia - something that has also raised concerns among election monitors.

His focus on poverty has won him the support of poor voters, while his business-friendly approach has also attracted richer ones.

The presidential vote was originally scheduled for November but was accelerated by the death in July of 92-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, the first directly elected head of state after the revolution that inspired the “Arab spring”.

Low turnout and the rejection of established politicians and parties in both the presidential and parliamentary polls have highlighted public dissatisfaction with Tunisian politics.

Salmi, the student voting at the Lac polling booth, said she had not voted in either the first round of the presidential election or in the parliamentary poll.

“But today I vote to support a candidate who will be president of all Tunisians and be fair,” she said.

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