Voters in Tunisia shun traditional leaders as political outsiders advance to runoff
Courtesy: France24

Two political outsiders who have never held public office advanced to the final round in Tunisia’s presidential election, the country’s election commission announced on Tuesday. 

The top two vote-getters in Sunday’s poll were Kais Saied, a law professor, who won 18.4% of the vote, and Nabil Karoui, a jailed media mogul who is currently in remand detention on corruption charges he denies, with 15.6%.

The two men will go into a runoff election next month. The date has yet to be announced. 

The vote on Sunday was the country’s second presidential election since the 2011 revolution that toppled former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The vote was called after President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was first elected in 2014, died in July.

The first round of voting saw a crowded field of 26 candidates that included well-known political figures such as Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, former Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, former interim President Moncef Marzouki and the Islamist Ennahda Party candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou.

Voter turnout stood at around 45% of the country’s seven million registered voters (up from 5.3 million registered in 2014), a significant drop from the 64% who voted in 2014. 

We spoke to Thameur Mekki, editor-in-chief of Nawaat, an independent media outlet in Tunis, to lay out Tunisia’s electoral landscape.

Mada Masr: Why was turnout so much lower than in 2014?

Thameur Mekki: First, we need to put the 64%[the 2014 voter turnout] in context, because the number of registered voters in the current presidential election is larger than in 2014. Accordingly, the rates are related to the number of registered voters, not eligible voters.

But there is an obvious explanation. People lost confidence in the ability of the electoral process as a democratic mechanism to fulfill their hopes. The drop in participation reflects a loss of confidence in the political elite, or at least those who have been at the forefront of the political scene in the years following the revolution.

Mada Masr: Why did people lose confidence in the political class?

Thameur Mekki: Simply put, they failed to provide solutions to the problems people face in Tunisia. Socioeconomic problems such as unemployment, poverty, marginalization, inequality between regions and development were never successfully addressed.

Even the political division [secular versus Islamist] no longer spoke to the interests of voters. Up until 2014, the issues of identity between Islamists and progressives, and the question of who would maintain the Bourguiba modernist trajectory [a reference to former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, who ruled between 1957-1987], but with democratization, was relevant. This was understandable because it was a foundational stage and it came amid the drafting of the constitution that would set the direction for the second Tunisian republic. This is why the issue of identity was so important.

But the burning question now is the socioeconomic question — which was the principal driver of the revolution — and this has not been effectively addressed. It amounted to nothing more than slogans and promises.

As we followed the interviews and debates in the presidential election, we noticed that journalists from the mainstream media — who are a part of a particular political elite — focused on the differences between political parties and the conflicts within each party and other similar issues that are of no interest to voters at all.

Most of these conflicts do not reflect the differences in principles or programs between parties. Instead, they are about the competition for influence and the ebb and flow of political dominance. Voters have no interest in these issues as they do not address their concerns.

Mada Masr: In this context, how can we understand Saied and Karoui advancing to the run-off? Was it a punitive vote? Were traditional politicians being ignored?

Thameur Mekki: The punitive vote is a part of it but we can’t say that it was only that. Each of these two candidates has specific characteristics that appeal to voters at this juncture.

Firstly, Kais Saied has the image of an intellectual — a university professor who studied constitutional law and has a serious and monotonous voice. He speaks Arabic eloquently. He represents the ideal educator but at the same time rejects the system as a whole. For example, he rejects many parts of the Tunisian constitution. This is a serious and pivotal point because the president is tasked with protecting and implementing the constitution.

His general rejection of the system, his representing a certain kind of idealism, his lack of connection to the economic elite, his total separation from political parties and the political scene, all help him appear as someone with a project to reassess all aspects of the state — or at least that’s what he claims.

For his part, Karoui made use of his TV channel, Nesma. He was one of the first to support Essebsi when he was establishing the Nidaa Tounes political party and used his TV channel to heavily back it. He is now in prison on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, which he denies. This case was long overdue because Karoui received protection from Essebsi while he was in office. In addition to the corruption charges, he is also accused of having connections to militias in Libya, as well as violating Tunisia’s media law.

Karoui’s ambitions grew when he realized how influential he was in Essebsi’s campaign, which eventually drove him to pursue his own political path. In the process, he took advantage of his son’s death in a car accident three years ago to establish a charity that allowed him to tour Tunisia, offering charitable assistance, food, home appliances and medical services.

Despite the popularity of this move and its divergence from the general principles governing political life in Tunisia, Karoui became the answer to the country’s social problems in the eyes of many people, even though he didn’t present any real plan for development. Karoui became a savior figure to the marginalized and impoverished in the absence of the state providing solutions to these socioeconomic classes.

For example, he dedicated a whole hour on his Nesma TV channel to reporting on his charity organization and its activities. He would call ministers and officials directly and ask them to solve specific problems faced by a citizen here and a citizen there.

Karoui took advantage of this situation to protect himself from accusations of corruption and to pull himself up the political ladder to compete in the presidential elections.

Mada Masr: Can we determine who voted for each of the candidates?

Thameur Mekki: Polling companies show that those who chose Karoui were illiterate or have basic primary education, as well as women between the ages of 45 to 55 years old. These are his most important supporters.

As for Saied, those who voted for him were the youth from the lower classes who are often looking to sever ties with the current political system. Saied does call for a break away from the system, but it is not necessarily a revolutionary one. It is more of a rupture based on extremely idealist principles and sensitive legal amendments. There is also the conservative tendency that Saied adopts, such as his rejection of a lot of human rights and individual principles, which appeals to conservative voters who are disappointed by either the Ennahda movement or the interim President, Moncef Marzouki. There is an intersection here between the youth, who want to break away from the post-revolutionary governance system — or even with the post-independence system following French occupation — on the one hand, and conservative, frustrated voters on the other.


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