Tunisia voted on Sunday to elect a successor to Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July aged 92.
Essebsi was Tunisia’s first democratically-elected president after the 2011 revolution unseated Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring.
Turnout was lower than the previous election — just 45.02% turned out to vote, the Independent High Authority for Elections announced after polls closed.
Two candidates said they qualified for a second round of the election even though the official results had not yet been released by the country's election authority.
The pre-election televised debate included a total of 26 candidates who duked it out over three nights in Tunis, in a live broadcast shown on 11 television channels and more than 20 radio stations across the Arab world.
In order to win after a first-round, a candidate would need at least 50% of the vote—an unlikely prospect given the number of candidates.
Candidates say they made it to the next round of the election
Populist candidate and academic Kaïs Saïed, who has called for a reinstatement of the death penalty and described homosexuality as a foreign plot against Tunisia, said he was through to the next round.
The campaign spokesman for businessman Nabil Karoui, who is currently detained on corruption charges, also said that the candidate is heading for the second round of the election.
"Today Tunisians said their word and wanted to change the power system... we have to respect the will of the people... Nabil Karoui will be in the second round... we won," a spokesman for Karoui, told reporters, according to Reuters.
Both campaigns based this on opinion polls conducted by Tunisian institutes Sigma Conseil and Emrhod, which put Saied first, followed by Karoui.
Difficult than ever
Given the destruction of Libya and Syria and descent of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt back into authoritarianism, Tunisia is often cited as the Arab Spring’s sole success story - but it has been far from an easy transition for the north African country.
As in neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia has implemented spending cuts and tax increases in order to liberalise its economy, but rising unemployment — from 12% before the revolution to 15% in 2019 — and an ongoing security crisis has made life for many Tunisians more difficult than ever.
In 2013, opposition leader Chokri Belaid was shot dead, and 2015 saw the Islamic State attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and at a beach resort in Sousse, killing 60 people in total. Meanwhile, more Islamic State fighters came from Tunisia than any other nation.
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a candidate for president, has made security issues his key focus, and pledged to continue the economic reforms he spearheaded as prime minister, however difficult they may be for the Tunisian middle class and working poor.
“We have to focus on the economy in order to give Tunisians prosperity and welfare, in order to give jobs for young Tunisians and in order to prepare for a new sustainable model of development in Tunisia,” Chahed told Reuters.
His resolve will certainly be well-received by Tunisia’s creditors at the International Monetary Fund, which struck a $2.8 (€2.5) billion deal with the country in 2016, when Chahed came to power. But it may not win him votes.
“There is a disappointment with what democracy has produced so far since the revolution. It has been eight years and people’s lives haven’t got any better,” Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Euronews.
“The economy is still a mess [...]. People are losing faith in the nation’s democratic system. There’s this real sense that all these politicians are the same, and that creates an opening.”
Stand up, Nabil Karoui. A media mogul-turned-politician, Karoui, 56, has been dubbed ‘Tunisia’s Berlusconi’ and bolstered his populist message with generous handouts to the country’s poor, all televised via his media network.
In August, Karoui was jailed for tax evasion and will run for president on Sunday from his jail cell - but it hasn’t dented his support, and the 56-year-old was polling ahead of both Chabed and Abdelfattah Mourou, the 71-year-old founder of the Ennahda party.
Another populist candidate, Kaïs Saïed, has called for a reinstatement of the death penalty and described homosexuality as a foreign plot against Tunisia. Abir Moussi — the only female candidate — was a supporter of the ousted Ben Ali. Mounir Baatour, a lawyer, is the first openly gay man to run for the leadership of an Arab state.
Despite the build-up to the poll, it is unlikely that Sunday will see a result. In order to win outright, a candidate would have to secure 50% of the vote, a difficult prospect in such a crowded field. More likely is a second or third round after Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in October.
But although Chabed is the most prominent individual and Ennahda Tunisia's best-known political party, which way the vote will go is anyone's guess. "It's impossible to call," said Dworkin.