Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Tunisia elections: Exit poll shows outsiders Saied and Karoui leading

Voters blamed candidates for low turnout

Turnout in the first round of Tunisia's 2019 elections has been muted, with voters attributing the low quality of this year's presidential candidates for electoral apathy.

Tunisia's electoral body confirmed voter turnout of 45.08 per cent domestically, with 19.7 per cent of Tunisian expatriates voting.

Two private polling companies, Sigma Conseil and Elmhrod Consulting, had two populists – retired law professor, Kais Saied and jailed TV boss Nabil Karoui – finishing first and second.

Should this be correct, their progression to the second round will mark Tunisia's greatest rejection of the status quo since the uprising in 2011.

In a subdued Tunis city centre an hour before the polls closed, small business owner Sami Saied told The National: "I'm not convinced by any of the candidates. It's not politics. It's them."

The electoral commission was imploring the public to get out and vote right up to the final hour of polling.

"You had a revolution for this moment. People paid with their blood so you could vote," electoral commission chief Nabil Baffoun told voters.

Only 24 of the country's presidential hopefuls made it to the first round of polling.

Long-term political maverick Slim Riahi withdrew in favour of the defence minister, Abdelkarim Zbidi.

Reports said that former tourism minister Selma Elloumi had done the same, but she later clarified that was not the case.

But there appeared to be little love for the remaining candidates who throughout their campaigns have relied more on soundbites than policy.

"They're all talking and promising things and for nothing," said Mohamed Ayari, 44, a waiter in Tunis. "There are only two presidents, [deposed autocrat Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali and [first Tunisian leader Habib] Bourguiba."

Much of the problem has lain in the common cause between the various contenders, who used televised debates to issue obvious policy directions with little detail, support or scrutiny.

And with many non-sectarian candidates seeking to downplay their religious credentials, such as Abdelfattah Mourou of the moderate Ennahda party, public attention has focused on Mr Karoui, who remained in detention throughout the campaign.

Any hopes among rivals that this would limit Mr Karoui's chances as a candidate who has campaigned as a proudly anti-system champion of Tunisia's poor began to look flawed before the vote.

"I'm going to vote for Karoui, purely because he's in prison," said Labidi Hichemm, who is retired. "If he wasn't in prison I wouldn't vote for him, but now we need to support him."

Mr Karoui was imprisoned on August 23 as he made his way back from opening a party office in Jendouba.

The charges of tax evasion and money laundering against the media magnate and his brother, Ghazi, date back to 2016. But the timing of the legal case against him raised many questions.

This is not the first impediment to be placed in Mr Karoui's way. Parliament tried to block his path by passing a controversial electoral law in June that would have precluded him from running.

In April, armed police raided Mr Karoui's Nessma TV offices, temporarily taking the channel off air for breaches of the country's broadcasting code.

That Tunisia faces significant structural challenges is hard to dispute. Eight years of a functioning democracy has done little to address a faltering economy and entrenched unemployment.

Sunday’s underwhelming turnout and the polling success of the two populist candidates are understandable in light of an establishment that many Tunisians feel has let them down.

Figures from the past also loomed large in Tunisian minds. Former first lady, Chadlia Saida Farhat Essebsi, wife of Beji Caid Essebsi whose death triggered the early election, died on the morning of the vote.

There was also the news from Saudi Arabia that former autocrat Mr Ben Ali remains gravely ill.

“Essebsi and his family would be happy with what’s happening today,” said Rym Mathlouthi, a journalist from the prosperous suburb of La Marsa.

“Ben Ali, less so. He was waiting to see democracy fail so he could say that Tunisia was not ready.”

Tunisia has made extraordinary gains since the 2011 uprising that drove Mr Ben Ali into exile.

It has pushed women’s rights, a free press and continues to work towards establishing a functioning democracy.

It has withstood much in achieving these ends. Apathy, however, may prove a challenge too far.

Updated: September 16, 2019 06:38 PM

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