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Outsiders Surge in Tunisia Presidential Polls

Voters queue outside a polling station during the first round of the presidential election, in La Marsa, outside Tunis, Sept. 15, 2019.

Two candidates who claim they will win through to Tunisia's presidential runoff — a conservative law expert and an imprisoned media mogul —
could hardly be more different, but both bill themselves as political outsiders.

Nabil Karoui, behind bars since August 23 on charges of money laundering, is a populist showman whose political colors changed with the times, culminating in the launch of his Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) party just months ago.

Maverick Kais Saied, meanwhile, is an academic committed to social conservatism who has ploughed his own furrow.

Nicknamed "Robocop" due to his abrupt, staccato speech and rigid posture, the impeccably dressed Saied shunned political parties, avoided mass rallies and campaigned door-to-door.

Hours after polling booths closed in the country's second free presidential polls since the 2011 Arab Spring, he declared he was in pole position.

"I am first in the first round and if I am elected president I will apply my program," he told AFP in a spartan apartment in central Tunis.

On the campaign trail, he advocated a rigorous overhaul of the constitution and voting system, to decentralize power "so that the will of the people penetrates into central government and puts an end to corruption".

With a quarter votes counted Monday, Tunisia's electoral commission (ISIE) put Saied in the lead with 19 percent of the vote.

Often surrounded by young acolytes, he has pushed social conservatism, defending the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.

Tunisia's 'would-be Berlusconi'

While Saied came from the sidelines with his unique approach to courting Tunisia's voters — and did so with barely any money behind him — media magnate Nabil Karoui's story is more flamboyant.

He has long maintained a high profile, using his Nessma TV channel to launch high-profile charity campaigns, often appearing in designer suits even while meeting some of the country's poorest citizens in marginalized regions.

These charitable endeavors, including doling out food aid, "helped me to get closer to people and realize the huge social problems facing the country," he once told AFP. "I have been touched by it."

Unlike Saied, he previously threw his lot in with an established political party, officially joining Beji Caid Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes in 2016, after actively supporting the late president in his successful campaign two years earlier.

He formally stepped down from Nessma's management after being criticized by international observers for his channel's partisan conduct in 2014.

But he subsequently made no secret of continuing to pull the strings at the channel, while honing his political profile.

His supporters claim his arrest was politically motivated, but detractors cast him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.

The arrest of the controversial Tunisian businessman in August followed his indictment the previous month in an investigation that dates back to 2017 and the submission by anti-corruption watchdog I-Watch of a dossier accusing him of tax fraud.

The 56-year-old was still given the green light to run and hit the campaign trail by proxy, deploying his wife and activists from his Heart of Tunisia party to woo voters.

"Nabil Karoui is in the second round," an official from the mogul's party told AFP late Sunday, as the businessman sat in prison outside the capital Tunis.

Partial results from ISIE on Monday put him in the second spot.

Observers say that if Karoui does make it to the second round, it will be hard for authorities to justify keeping him behind bars without a trial.

Saied, meanwhile, has not been immune from discomforting scrutiny.

Confronted late last week in a broadcast debate with a photo showing him meeting an ex-member of a banned Salafi group, he asked: "Do I have to ask permission to meet someone?"

But in a sign of voters' antipathy towards the overall field, the ISIE put turnout at 45 percent, down substantially from the 64 percent recorded for the country's first democratic polls in 2014.

The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls set for October 6.