Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 September 2020

Tunisia election: starkly different candidates Nabil Karoui and Kais Saied vie for presidency

Although the president has fewer powers than a prime minister the post is still Tunisia's most senior directly elected official

People watch a televised debate between presidential candidates Kais Saied, left, and Nabil Karoui, on the last day of campaigning before the second round of the presidential elections, in Tunis, Tunisia, Friday, October 11, 2019. AP
People watch a televised debate between presidential candidates Kais Saied, left, and Nabil Karoui, on the last day of campaigning before the second round of the presidential elections, in Tunis, Tunisia, Friday, October 11, 2019. AP

If he wins Sunday's election, media mogul Nabil Karoui will only have to stroll up one of Tunisia's most expensive streets to move from his own home into the presidential palace.

For his opponent Kais Saied, the journey would be very different: through poor districts where the 2011 uprising flared and where the cafes are filled with unemployed young men.

The stark contrast between their neighbourhoods - Mr Karoui's opulent Carthage and Saied's earthier Mnihla - underscores the many other differences between the candidates in both their politics and temperament.

Supporters of Mr Karoui, a self-assured businessman facing corruption charges, present Sunday's run-off presidential vote as a choice between a professionally successful, secular champion of Tunisia's poor and an inexperienced conservative backed by Islamists.

Backers of Mr Saied, an awkward law professor who has barely campaigned in the race, see it as pitting a humble, principled representative of the 2011 revolution that brought democracy to the country against a glib, corrupt avatar of Tunisia's unchanging moneyed elite.

Although the president has fewer powers than a prime minister the post is still Tunisia's most senior directly elected official with wide political influence. The prime minister will be picked by the parliament that was elected last Sunday.

No polls have been published since before the election period, but Mr Saied took 18.4 per cent of votes in last month's first round and Mr Karoui 15.6 per cent.

Both men have presented themselves as political outsiders riding a wave of public dissatisfaction with the years of economic stagnation that followed the 2011 revolution.

On Friday night, weeks after Mr Karoui and Mr Saied took the top two places in the first round vote, Tunisians will see them debate face-to-face for the first time.

The reason they have not met on the hustings already is that Karoui was in detention since August awaiting a verdict in his trial for tax evasion and money laundering, accusations he denies.

With democracy watchdogs raising concerns about the credibility of Sunday's election, a court released Mr Karoui on Wednesday evening, allowing him to leave prison before a crowd of cheering supporters.

Mr Karoui's legal troubles have reinforced the perception among his critics that he is a self-serving opportunist, and among his supporters that he is the victim of political machinations by influential rivals.

He made his fortune through a communications company he set up with his brother during the reign of Tunisia's autocratic former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia last month.

Recently, his unlicensed Nessma TV station has broadcast constant footage advertising Mr Karoui's philanthropy in the poorest districts of Tunisia.

Yet Mr Karoui makes no bones about his wealth, and his formula for improving the lives of the poor involves boosting business - something that goes down well with the rich.

In the cypress-lined streets around his home, boasting foreign embassies, government palaces and ancient Roman sites, and with the Mediterranean glittering in the background, few people backed Mr Saied.

"In the first round all the people here voted for Nabil Karoui and they will vote for him again on Sunday to keep their interests," said Nabila Nabli, a local resident who works as governess to a French family.

Yet Mr Karoui also has great support in some of Tunisia's poorest areas. In the parliamentary elections last Sunday, his party came first in the deprived northwestern hills near the Algerian border.

Mr Saied has the support of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that came out on top in the parliamentary vote last week, as well as some secular, leftwing groups.

Mr Saied has voiced some conservative social views, but has mostly kept quiet on policy issues.

His professed focus is on installing a form of direct democracy, but he also wants to stop the influence of foreign money in Tunisia and see a bigger state role in the economy.

For many, his appeal lies in his personality. He spent no cash on his campaign, preferring to simply talk to people in cafes. His formal personal manner has bolstered his image as a man ready to root out corruption, cronyism and privilege.

In his Mnihla district on the outskirts of Tunis, he lives in a large house in a new, middle-class development closely surrounded by much poorer areas.

Updated: October 12, 2019 01:07 PM

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