Jailed tycoon, professor in Tunisian presidential runoff

TUNIS, Tunisia — Jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui and independent law professor Kais Saied without a party are advancing to the runoff in Tunisia’s presidential elections, the electoral authority announced Tuesday.

The electoral commission said the two candidates came out on top in the first round of voting Sunday. Saied had 18.4% of the vote and Karoui 15.6%.

The date for the runoff hasn’t yet been announced.

Neither candidate has ever held political office. They beat out two prime ministers and the candidate for the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, whose party is the biggest force in Tunisia’s parliament. He placed third with 12.8 per cent.

Karoui’s lawyers are seeking his release from jail before the runoff. Accused of tax evasion and money laundering, he says he’s the victim of a smear campaign.

The official results confirm projections by a polling firm, and Karoui’s supporters quickly declared victory while some losing candidates among the 26 contenders had already acknowledged their losses.

The first-round results threw Tunisia and its young democracy into an unprecedented situation with a constitutional law professor, viewed as very conservative and apparently with few means to campaign pitted against a media-savvy communicator with progressive views and means to publicize them — but jailed since last month.

Questions loom as to how Karoui can campaign on an even footing ahead of the runoff if he remains behind bars, or what happens if he wins. There have been suggestions that Karoui would invoke immunity, but it was unclear whether he could do that without first being officially declared president — not just the winner.

The unprecedented situation underscores the complications facing the young Tunisian democracy holding its second democratic election for president since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, unleashing the Arab Spring across the region. The vote was called early after the death in office in July of Beji Caid Essebsi.

The low turnout — about 45% — may have favoured candidates from outside the system.

Saied appears to be the ultimate outsider, saying in an interview earlier Tuesday that he is in competition with no one — even Karoui.

“I’m not in competition or in a race with anyone,” he told The Associated Press at his office in central Tunis.

He spoke shortly before official preliminary results were announced.

Karoui, considered a progressive, was likely to become his contender for the Tunisian presidency.

Saied, considered very conservative, said that people should vote in the runoff with their “conscience.”

He said: “I did not say elect me … I don’t look at other competitors.”

Saied suggested that he would remain outside the party system, saying, “I have lived independent and I will remain independent.”

Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 6, another challenge since the new president’s success will depend on having support from lawmakers. That could pose a challenge to Saied without a political affiliation.

Meanwhile, suspense continued to hang over the first-round electoral process with some of the candidates under scrutiny for allegedly infringing campaign rules, according to a member of the electoral body.

Sofiane Laabidi suggested in an interview Tuesday with Mosaique FM radio that candidates could be disqualified but didn’t elaborate, or name them.

Bouazza Ben Bouazza And Mosa’Ab Elshamy, The Associated Press