A socially conservative law professor has beaten a charismatic media mogul in Tunisia’s presidential election.
Rabat – Kais Saied won more than 70% of votes in the Tunisian presidential election, beating out his opponent Nabil Karoui by more than 40 points.
Saied is the second freely-elected president of Tunisia after Beji Caid Essebsi, who became president in 2014.
The retired law professor, nicknamed “Robocop” for his austere manner, has no political experience nor party affiliation. In contrast to his multimillionaire opponent, Saied had to borrow money to register as a candidate and barely campaigned at all.
Saied’s divergence from Tunisia’s political norm, however, is what made him so appealing to such a large majority of voters.
Saied is calling for constitutional reform and a complete overhaul of the country’s political system in favor of a decentralized democratic model. He promises to fight the flaws of the old system: corruption, clientelism, opacity, and nepotism.
Saied’s platform also prioritizes improving healthcare and education, uprooting poverty, combating the country’s rising consumer prices, and reducing unemployment.
In terms of foreign policy, the new president is a pan-Arabist and denounces any normalization with Israel.
His conservative social views include favoring the death penalty, criminalizing homosexuality, and opposing equal inheritance for men and women.
Saied earned the support of both far-left groups and Islamists, most notably the “Muslim democratic” Ennahda Party.
He is also very popular among Tunisian youth. The polling institute Sigma Council estimates that about 90% of 18- to 25-year-olds voted for Saied.
The election’s voter turnout reached nearly 60%, according to the same source.
Robocop vs. Corleone
Saied’s opponent, a wealthy businessman and TV station owner, campaigned from prison after being booked on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering.
Nicknamed “Corleone” after the main protagonist in the 1972 film the Godfather, Karoui is suave, charismatic, and allegedly corrupt.
The former presidential candidate earned millions from various business ventures such as Karoui & Karoui World, a leading advertising company in the Maghreb, and the private Tunisian TV station “Nessma.”
In addition to running a poverty-fighting charity, Karoui also has a popular show in which he gives out domestic appliances to needy families. The liberal populist was nicknamed “Nabil Makrouna,” which translates to “Nabil Pasta” in the Tunisian dialect, after he handed out bags of pasta to the poor.
Tunisian authorities arrested Karoui in August after a three-year investigation. However, his supporters have denounced the charges as a conspiracy against his candidacy. Released just days ago, Karoui may attempt to challenge the election results.
A new era of Tunisian politics
Saied is set to hold office for a five-year term, during which he will have control over the country’s defense, foreign policy, and national security.
His main challenge, however, will be reducing the 15.4% unemployment rate.
The election results come less than three months after former president Essebsi’s death on July 25, 2019.
Essebsi was the first democratically-elected president of Tunisia after the 2011 Arab Uprisings swept through the region.
Essebsi is credited with maintaining stability in Tunisia during his presidency. However, he faced criticism for being too authoritarian regarding matters of security. Some opponents accused him of seeking to restore Ben Ali’s rulership.
Saied’s victory demonstrates Tunisian voters’ unquestionable rejection of the ruling elite who have held power since the 2011 uprisings.