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Tunisian election: What you need to know about the two leading candidates

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Nabil Karoui (L) and Kais Saied.
Nabil Karoui (L) and Kais Saied.
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Detained media magnate Nabil Karoui and populist academic Kais Saied, two political outsiders, both said on Sunday that they were through to the second round of Tunisia's presidential election.

Official results are expected to be released on Tuesday.

Only 45% of the electorate turned up to cast their ballot in the first round of the second presidential election the country has staged since the 2011 Arab spring which unseated dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Karoui and Saied's duel in the runoff would, if confirmed, represent a sharp rebuke to the political establishment and the moderate Islamist Ennahda party which took part in two coalition government.

Here is everything you need to know about the two candidates.

Nabil Karoui

"Today is an exceptional day," Karoui wrote on Sunday in a Facebook post, adding that by casting their ballot for him, voters had said "no to injustice, no to poverty and marginalisation and yes to a fair state, yes to a better future and yes to hope."

Karoui, who denied any wrongdoing, was arrested last month on three-year-old charges for tax evasion and money laundering. A court ruled on Friday that he must remain in detention.

His detractors also accuse him of illicitly using his unlicensed television station and his charity as campaign tools but his supporters decry the timing of his arrest as politically-motivated.

On Facebook, he wrote that he is "punished by the people who tried to steal the votes of the electorate and manipulate the elections, they put me in jail without trial to prevent me from campaigning."

Born in the Bizerte in 1963, Karoui launched his first business venture, a communications agency, in 1996 with his brother, Ghazi. Before that, he had primarily worked in France.

Six years later, they founded an independent media and advertising group, Karoui & Karoui World, which went on to launch the popular Nessma television channel.

Despite censorship, Nessma became a reference during the Arab Spring for giving a platform to dissenting voices including Essebsi.

Karoui then joined late president Beji Caid Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes party but started drawing the ire of the country's television watchdog in 2015 which accused him of using his channel to boost Nidaa Tounes's profile. The I Watch NGO also accused him in 2016 of money laundering and tax evasion.

Internal splits saw him quitting Nidaa Tounes in 2017 but in June 2019, he announced his candidacy under the Qalb Tounes banner.

Kais Saied

Contrary to Karoui, Saied was largely unknown before the election. He had also never tried his hands at politics.

This 61-year-old constitutional law scholar has no party, no structure to support him. His campaign relied on about 15 people and no public meetings were organised.

Instead, he favoured door-to-door campaigning and travelled to some 100 cities across the country, visiting cafés and markets to spread his message.

His attacks against the elites whom he accuses of "selling an illusion" has primarily appealed to the working class and students but his delivery, seen as rigid and expressionless, has seen him dubbed "Robocop".

A conservative, he has come out in favour of the death penalty, punishment for homosexuality and opposes equal inheritance rights between men and women.

The independent candidate has also advocated for a radical change of institutions, more decentralisation of power and a reform of the Constitution.