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How two political outsiders defied all predictions in Tunisia’s second free elections

September 19, 2019 at 6:02 pm

Law professor Kais Saied (L) and detained media mogul Nabil Karoui (R) [Twitter]

Now it is official; Kais Saied, hardly known outside the university walls made it to the second round of presidential elections in Tunisia with 18.4 per cent of the votes according to the country’s Independent High Authority for Elections, known by its French acronym ISIE. The second candidate to make it through, with 15.6 per cent of the votes, is Nabil Karoui; a media mogul already in jail accused of money laundering and tax evasion.

The result is anything but a huge surprising blow to Tunisia’s political elite. They believed that heavy weight candidates like Islamist Abdelfattah Mourou, incumbent Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and former president Moncef Marzouki were set to dominate the second round. No one predicted that an independent Kais Saied would have a chance.

Seen in the wider picture of the tremulous region, and in the country where the Arab Spring started in 2011, this is people’s power in its finest manifestation. Already disappointed and distrustful of many quarreling political parties, the people who revolted eight years ago came back to claim their revolution.

READ: Tunisian presidential candidate to remain in jail

While somewhat old political parties like the Ennahda Party and new ones like Neda Tunis dominated the political scene since the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, they failed to solve the country’s many problems. Tunis has an estimated 15 per cent unemployment rate particularly among the very young people who revolted against Ben Ali. In 2014 the number of Tunisians living below the poverty line was estimated to be 24.7 per cent.

This is a strong indicator that corruption and economic mismanagement became very serious challenges in the country, hampering its growth and democratic progress. An issue IWatch, a civil society organisation, followed very closely leading to court cases that landed presidential hopeful Nabil Karoui in jail. Notably though Karoui, who came second in Sunday’s elections, accused IWatch of defamation, however all the 20 cases he brought against it were dismissed. The court cases could lead to him losing the presidency should he win the second round.

The result also is an indicator of progressive civil society in a country with strong trade union history; it made history in 2015 by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. IWatch made history itself by bringing the case of money laundering against Karoui, one of the Tunisia’s strongest and richest businessmen, to the fore.

If Tunisians toppled their longtime president, Ben Ali, in a revolt, dominated by the poor and unemployed, now they can claim they are moving in the right direction of achieving their revolution’s main goals; freedom and equality. The country has one of the biggest gaps in income in the world. While 20 per cent of Tunisians earn 46.3 per cent of the national income, the bottom 20 per cent earn about 5.9 of the national wealth while the middle class has been eroding quickly over the past decade.

Now it will be interesting to watch the second round of voting and how it will playout both politically and legally, and this will be a strong test for the country’s judiciary. If Karoui, jailed since 23 August, wins the second round and becomes president elect how could he become president?

READ: 5 parties support Saied in second round of presidential elections

Tunisia’s presidential elections – [Cartoon/Arabi21]

ISIE member, Anis Jarboui, said that in such a case the ISIE will “declare him the winner and send his file to the parliament”. Ahmed Sassi, an independent lawyer, told me that Karoui “is not convicted yet and he is still being investigated. He is in jail because he is a flight risk.” If he wins the second round Sassi believes Karoui will automatically gain “legal immunity once he is certified as the winner” and all cases against him will be annulled. This view is shared by many Tunisians who benefited from Karoui’s many charities and voted for him, including cab driver Kamal Mongi. While driving me to the airport, after casting his vote last Sunday, Mongi said: “Karoui will be president and cases against him are fabricated and will be dismissed once he is declared the winner.” What makes the case complicated is the fact it is without precedent, the law does not provide for it and the constitutional court, the likely arbitrator of such disputes, is not functioning thanks to political quarrels between different parties. The late president did not appoint his four judges, as required by law, and this paralyzed the court.What is more likely, though, is that candidate Kais Saied will win given that he won the first round rather easily with a nearly three-point margin ahead of Karoui. While Saied is a newcomer, he is a well-respected constitutional law professor who has never worked in the government. This might hinder his abilities to navigate the levers of power in a rather fragile democracy. Tunisia, despite its 2011 revolution, still has one of the most deeply rooted bureaucracies in the region compared only to Morocco’s well entrenched deep state. In fragile transitional situations like this inexperienced leaders, lacking any organised political machineries, are easily frustrated by the well-established political parties with their own agendas. Tunisia will have its parliamentary elections next month unless pushed back given the fact that the second round of presidential elections is likely to take place in October too.Whatever happens once again Tunisians score high on two important benchmarks. One their ability to settle their conflicting political opinions through ballots not bullets like many other countries visited by the Arab Spring. And two, Tunisians will always believe in strong civil society in their country that can plug the holes whenever they appear in the system. Above all though Tunisians will always credit their late longtime leader, Habib Bourguiba, for laying the foundations for modern Tunisia where education is the tool to progress. Despite his bad democratic credential, Bourguiba will always be synonymous with modern day Tunisia.

READ: Ennahdha will support ‘candidates who will protect the revolution’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.