Law professor Kais Saied is poised to become Tunisia’s next leader after he achieved a resounding victory in a presidential run-off that could chart a new course for the young democracy, according to exit polls.
Carried by a wave of support from Tunisian youth, the independent academic defeated his opponent, business mogul Nabil Karoui, by upwards of 1.5 million votes, projections showed, sending a clear message that Tunisians had chosen a new path away from traditional politics, analysts said.
“Saied was popular precisely because he did not have a party or a well-funded campaign,” Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Telegraph.
“That fed into his image as an honest, incorruptible man and gave him the credibility to launch an anti-corruption agenda.”
Mr Saied, a conservative jurist who advocates decentralisation of governance and strengthening ties with Tunisia’s Arab and African neighbours, won over 70 per cent of the vote, projections showed, drawing on support from students and youth, as well as many Islamists and Leftists.
After his projected win, Mr Saied said that youth had helped “turn a new page” and promised to “try to build a new Tunisia.
The mood was exuberant the night of October 13 on central Tunis’ main avenue, where thousands gathered to cheer Saied’s landmark victory and celebrate a successful step in their country’s democratic transition.
“For the first time in history, we feel like we elected the one we really wanted,” 26-year-old Ahmed Nasri, who voted for the recently retired professor in both rounds, told The Telegraph. “It’s a very proud moment for all of Tunisia.”
The projected election of Saied marked an end to a hard-fought election cycle that saw political outsiders surge over establishment figures that were blamed for years of socio-economic problems.
It could also mean a new foreign policy vision for the North African country that is located at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
“Generally, Saied’s foreign priorities are close to home – Algeria and Libya,” said Grewal. “It’s therefore hard to say how relations with the West will be affected, though he has pledged to continue all international agreements."
Saied and his run-off opponent Karoui, both political novices, outlasted 24 other contenders in the first round of voting, including the country’s defence minister, house speaker and prime minister.
But Karoui was set back by lingering suspicions of tax evasion and money laundering that saw him jailed until four days before the vote. Mr Karoui, reeling from his defeat, said that he had not been provided “equal chances” because of his imprisonment and that his opponents had “sabotaged” him.
But the next day Mr Karoui extended his “sincere congratulations” to Mr Saied and promised to work with him “in the interest of the Tunisian people,” an indication he would not challenge the results as previously planned.