Nabil Baffoun, head of Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections (lower left) announces the outcome of the country’s presidential vote on Monday in Tunis. Behind him are the voting outcomes for the defeated Nabil Karoui (left) and winner Kais Saied. (Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Saied Takes Tunisian Presidential Runoff with Landslide Victory

Humble, politically independent academic skirts country’s political norms

The Independent High Authority for Elections in Tunisia announced on Monday that candidate Kais Saied had won the country’s runoff for president with some 73 percent of the vote. Saied defeated Nabil Karoui, a media mogul who ran his campaign from a jail cell where he is awaiting possible trial on corruption charges, garnering just 27% of the vote.

The two had been the top vote-getters in the first round of the election, held on September 15, but because neither passed the requisite 50% threshold, the election went to a second round, held this past Sunday.

Following exit poll projections that also showed a landslide for Saied, the 61-year-old independent candidate spoke to supporters in a speech broadcast live by state TV. He assured viewers that the voters’ confidence in him would not be in vain, and that he was aware of the magnitude of the responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders.

“The people want, and here you are today achieving what you want,” he said, adding that governance would be built on trust and responsibility.

“We need to renew trust between rulers and [the] ruled,” he stated. “We will work within the framework of the Constitution and fully respect it.”

Saied was born in Tunis in 1958 into a middle-class family. He has two daughters and a son. He is an expert on constitutional law and taught on the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences from 1999 to 2018. He has few published works and never earned a PhD.

Analysts in the Middle East are construing the outcome as a sharp rebuke to the political establishment that has dominated Tunis since the 2011 Arab Spring – which actually began in Tunisia and toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. (Ben Ali died last month in Saudi Arabia, where he had been living in self-exile.)

Many Tunisians have been dissatisfied with the slow progress in reforming the economy, which is suffering from high rates of unemployment and inflation.

“The winning of candidate Kais Saied breaks the political track and system attached to Tunis since independence up until the 2014 elections,” Nizar Makani, a Tunisian political analyst and instructor at the country’s Institute of Press and News Science, told The Media Line.

Makani clarified that due to international circumstances as well as what had been a “dictatorial” time, the decisions on the Tunisian presidency used to come from abroad and serve foreign agendas.

“In 2014, foreign interests centered around the personality of candidate Mohamed Beji Caid, especially the interests of Qatar and Turkey,” Makani added.

Essebsi won, but he died this past July, causing this year’s election, scheduled for November, to be moved forward.

“The interests of European countries and the United States, as well as some other states, had always influenced who would rule,” Makani explained, and the victory of Saied, an academic who is mostly unknown to the outside world, shows that this time around, the Tunisian people had decided to choose a new system that could offer new alternatives to meet their aspirations.

Makani says, however, that Saied now faces another major challenge in that he will have to work with a deeply divided parliament, whose members were elected the previous Sunday in an outcome indicating fierce bargaining to select a prime minister and establish a ruling coalition. The two largest parties in parliament are the moderately Islamic Ennahda, with close to 24% of the 217 seats, and Karoui’s Tunisian Heart, with just 17%.

“In his [televised] speech,” Makani related, “Saied stated that he’d be the president of all Tunisians…. To that extent, he’s obligated to open a dialogue between the different parties to form a government.”

The only alternative would to be a revote for parliament.

Ismail Miraf, an Algerian political analyst and former media professor at the University of Algeria, told The Media Line that Saied, an independent, had good chances to make it possible for all sides to gather round his program.

“His position on the Palestinian case is unprecedented,” he said. “His election campaign wasn’t funded by any party, and Saied is very popular. Now he has the legitimacy [conferred upon him by] the Tunisian people.”

Moreover, Miraf points out that Saied’s victory shows Tunisia has taken a big step in terms of democracy, empowerment and the enabling a state of institutions.

“This doesn’t happen in Arab states, where a humble academic with no money wins [against] business people with all kinds of power – which gives [people] hope,” he explained.

In addition, Miraf stressed that what happened in Tunisia could become a tough lesson for Arab states filled with tyranny and oppression, and lacking freedoms and respect for the law – attributed that have proved barriers to a democratic process for so long.

“They don’t provide or allow an appropriate political climate for the political forces to work appropriately,” he noted, “and that’s why the Arab region is going backward. They should learn from Tunisia.”

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