TUNIS, TUNISIA - Tunisians are voting for president Sunday in an unusual contest pitting a populist tycoon who just got out of jail against a conservative professor backed by resurgent Islamists.
The winner of Sunday’s runoff vote will inherit a North African country struggling to overcome corruption, unemployment and sporadic extremist violence — but proud of its still-budding, post-Arab Spring democracy.
The choice for voters between two quirky candidates who have never held political office has made for an unprecedented election.
The top performer in last month’s first-round vote was 61-year-old Kais Saied, an enigmatic former constitutional law professor dubbed “Robocop” for his austere bearing.
His challenger is Nabil Karoui, a glib, 56-year-old media mogul who spent most of the campaign behind bars on accusations of money laundering and tax evasion that he calls politically driven.
The only thing the men have in common is their outsider status.
A well-heeled entrepreneur who just started his political party this year, Karoui campaigned on promises to fight the poverty that has hobbled Tunisia since its 2011 pro-democracy uprising unleashed revolts around the Arab world.
Detractors dubbed him “Nabil Macaroni” because his party distributes the noodles to the poor. He embraced it: “Nabil Macaroni, and proud to be,” Radio Mosaique quoted him as saying Friday.
During an unprecedented TV debate, Karoui promised to combat extremist violence by “attacking at its roots” and raising economic prospects in struggling provinces that are fertile recruiting grounds for the Islamic State group and other extremists.
A self-proclaimed modernist, he said he would seek partnerships with companies such as Microsoft, Google and Netflix to create jobs, and holds up women as pillars of society.
Saied, a conservative independent supported by the Islamist party Ennahdha, has drawn in support with his Mr. Clean image and by promising to overhaul the “pyramid of power” to give poorer provinces and youth more decision-making power.
He sits poker-straight, his blank visage hiding any visible sign of emotion, and speaks in a staccato style — and in literary Arabic, a tongue inaccessible to many in Tunisia’s rural interior. Firmly conservative, he opposes equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons, arguing that the hot-button issue is decided by the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
Despite the backing of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, which won last week’s parliamentary elections, he describes himself as politically neutral.
“I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life,” he said.
Both men want Tunisia to work to bring peace to neighboring Libya.
A sign of democracy
For very different reasons, neither Karoui nor Saied has campaigned in a traditional way.
Saied let youthful supporters do much of the campaigning for him while Karoui gave the job to his wife while he tried to get released from prison.
After their televised debate Friday, they cordially shook hands _ a gesture Tunisians celebrated as a sign that their democracy is on the right track.
But whoever wins the presidency of Tunisia, tucked between Algeria and Libya, has tough challenges ahead, from trying to bolster a flagging economy, injecting hope into the despairing hinterlands and staying atop a constant counter-terrorism effort.
The new president will also have to work with a fractious parliament, the result of legislative elections Oct. 6 that gave no party a clear majority.
Tunisia held its presidential election early following the July death in office of President Beji Caid Essebsi.