Tunisian political newcomers say they are leading presidential vote

World

TUNIS (Reuters) – Two political outsiders said they believed they had advanced to the second round of Tunisia’s presidential election on Sunday, citing exit polls, though no official results have been announced.

A representative for detained media magnate Nabil Karoui said he had scored “an impressive win”, while conservative law professor Kais Saied, who was largely unknown before the election, said his performance marked “a new revolution”.

If confirmed, their success on Sunday in a vote marked by a low turnout would be a sharp rebuke to Tunisia’s established political powers after years of economic frustration.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, a partner in recent coalition governments, will hold a news conference later on Sunday. A party official, speaking anonymously, said the race was between Karoui, Saied and the Ennahda candidate Abdelfatah Mourou.

“This is an impressive win that shows Tunisians want to cut the old system and want to see a leader who is like them… it is a lesson for the rulers,” said Samira Chaouachi, an official in Karoui’s party.

The independent election commission said turnout was slightly above 45%, down from 63& in the last presidential election in 2014.

The election featured some of Tunisia’s top establishment figures, with Karoui and Saied among the 26 candidates listed on the ballot.

In the central Lafayette district of Tunis, dozens of people stood patiently queuing in the Rue de l’Inde primary school in a whitewashed stucco courtyard under sky blue wooden shutters.

Kholoud Alwi, 27, said none of the candidates had convinced her. “But I have to vote. It’s important for the country,” she said.

Heavily indebted, Tunisia’s next government, like its last, will have to navigate popular demands to relax public purse strings while foreign lenders push for spending cuts.

With more than two dozen candidates on the ballot paper, no overwhelming favorite had emerged before voting began, making it the most competitive presidential election in Tunisia’s brief history of democracy.

Tunisia threw off autocratic rule eight years ago in a revolution that inspired “Arab Spring” revolts in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, but it alone has enjoyed a peaceful transition to democracy.

An election official empties a ballot box after polls closed during the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, September 15, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

However, after years of economic troubles including high unemployment and inflation, many Tunisians have voiced frustration over their government’s inability to improve living standards.

Many voters are disillusioned. In the poor Ettadamen district, Mouaz Chneifiya, a 42-year-old unemployed man, was sitting in a cafe and said he would not vote.

“Since the election we’ve been getting promises and nothing is done on the ground, so why vote? The elections will end and the promises will be dropped as soon as they get into office like in past elections,” he said.

Tunisians have been engrossed by Karoui’s fate. A court on Friday ruled that he must stay in detention after his arrest last month on three-year-old charges brought by a transparency watchdog for tax evasion and money laundering.

He denies wrongdoing and his supporters say the timing of his arrest showed the establishment was trying to silence him.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, as well as two former prime ministers, a former president and Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi are also standing.

CROWDED FIELD

The election was brought forward after the death in July of the incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi.

Tunisia’s president has direct control over foreign and defense policy while most other portfolios are handled by a prime minister chosen by parliament, for which an election will be held on October 6.

With that limited role, many candidates have emphasized their policies on security – an area in which Tunisia has improved since two jihadist attacks in 2015 killed scores of tourists, devastating the country’s tourism sector.

A pair of armed soldiers stood outside each polling station Reuters visited.

Despite economic frustrations, many voters said they were proud of Tunisia’s march to democracy.

Slideshow (24 Images)

Outside the capital, in the village of Sidi Thabet, six middle-aged men sat debating the merits of rival campaigns in a field under the shade of a gum tree, having pulled chairs over from the cafe opposite.

They each had the inky forefinger that showed they had voted, and were united in concern at the poor level of public services in a local economy based on growing olives, vegetables and fruit, though they supported different candidates.

Reporting by Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall; additional reporting by Mohamed Argoubi; editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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