Tunisians are choosing between a retired law professor and a media mogul in the final vote of a presidential election on Sunday, eight years after a revolution that forged a new democracy and inspired the “Arab spring”.
Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui are starkly different candidates who beat 24 rivals including many top politicians in the first round of voting last month, as Tunisians rejected a political establishment that has failed to address chronic economic ills.
At a polling booth in the upmarket Lac area of northern Tunis where Karoui will vote later on Sunday, 21-year-old student Najwa Salmi said she had travelled from her university in the city of Sousse to elect the next head of state.
“We want a president who respects his powers… we don’t need one who will bring in his family,” she said, without saying who she would vote for.
Tunisia’s president has less direct control over policy than the prime minister and a separate legislative election last week created a deeply fractured parliament with no clear path to a new governing coalition.
The new leaders will have to tackle unemployment of 15%, inflation of 6.8%, public anger at the declining quality of public services and pressure from foreign lenders to cut deficits and rein in large state debt.
Saied, the law professor, who took most votes in last month’s first round, has conservative social views and a programme based on introducing a more direct form of democracy that he could struggle to implement.
With a stiff public manner and a highly formal speaking style, Saied has particularly won over young voters despite having spent virtually nothing on his campaign.
Supporters see him as a humble man of unbending principle whose opposition to corruption and cronyism has won him the backing of leftists, while his social views have helped him to gain Islamist votes too.
Karoui, the media mogul, was only released from detention on Wednesday after spending most of the election campaign behind bars awaiting a verdict in his corruption trial. He denies all accusations of wrongdoing.
His unlicensed Nessma TV has for several years been making frequent broadcasts that show Karoui distributing charity in the poorest parts of Tunisia.
His focus on poverty has won him the support of many poor voters, while his business-friendly approach has also attracted richer Tunisians.
Sunday’s vote is the third national election in five weeks, following the first round of the presidential vote in September, in which Saied took 18.4% and Karoui 15.6%, and a parliamentary election a week ago.
The presidential vote was originally scheduled for November but was accelerated by the death in July of 92-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, the first directly elected head of state in a free election after the transition to democracy that began in 2011.
Low turnout and the rejection of established politicians and parties in both the presidential and parliamentary polls have highlighted public dissatisfaction with Tunisian politics.
Salmi, the student voting at the Lac polling booth, said she had not voted in either the first round of the presidential election or in the parliamentary poll.
“But today I vote to support a candidate who will be president of all Tunisians and be fair,” she said.