Results from Tunisia’s Second Free Presidential Election

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Middle East and North Africa Desk

Written by: Ariana Habibi, Saybrook College ’22

On October 13, Kais Saied was elected the sixth President of Tunisia in the country’s second free presidential election.[1]

Saied ran as an independent candidate, but was supported by Ennahdna—the Islamist party which won the country’s parliamentary election held in early October—and is fairly conservative in his policies. For instance, he has stated that homosexuality is encouraged by foreign countries and has opposed gender equality in inheritance issues. Nevertheless, he describes himself as a modernist.

Throughout the campaign, Saied acquired the nickname of “Robocop” on account of his stern and emotionless appearance, as well as his use of formal Arabic—a language that is inaccessible to much of the Tunisian rural interior—instead of the Tunisian dialect. In spite of this seeming lack of relatability, Saied portrayed himself as being a quintessential man of the people. He concentrated his platform on the disenchantment of Tunisians who felt as though the government had failed to fulfill the promises of the Jasmine Revolution.

The Tunisian presidential electoral system follows the two-round system: if no candidate receives an outright majority in the first round of elections, then a second round is held between only the two top candidates. In the first round, held on September 15, Saied received 18.4% of the vote; in the second and deciding round, he won 72.2%. His opponent and nearest competitor, Nabil Karoui, received 15.6% of the vote, and in the second got only 27.3%.[2]

Neither candidate had held previous political office: Saied is a former professor of constitutional law, and Karoui is a media businessman. Additionally, neither devoted much time or attention to their campaigns. Saied snubbed formal political rallies, for he preferred to organize at smaller-scale locations, such as cafes. Conversely, Karoui was limited in the amount of campaigning he could do on account of having been imprisoned for money laundering; he was arrested on August 23, and was released from prison on October 9, a few days ahead of the second round of elections.[3]

            The elections were initially planned to occur later in November, but the death of incumbent President Beji Caid Essebsi in July 2019 pushed them up to September.[4] This change in timing was done in order to comply with the Tunisian constitution, which mandates that a new president take office within 90 days.

            During Saied’s five-year presidential term, he will be expected to deal with a Tunisian socio-economic landscape ridden with increasing unemployment, decreasing tourism, and sporadic extremist violence, as well as a political environment in which there is no clear parliamentary majority. On top of this, Tunisia is also involved in the European migrant crisis, for it is simultaneously a source country of migrants trying to reach Europe and a transit country for migrants moving from further within Africa.

That being said, Tunisians are hopeful they are on the right track. If nothing else, they may take solace in the fact that they are the only country involved in the 2011 Arab Spring to have transitioned to democracy.[5]

The results of the 2019 presidential election were definitive, and there were no appeals to Saied’s victory. 

[1] “Kais Saied Officially Wins Tunisia’s Presidential Election.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 17, 2019.

[2] “Tunisia Polls Suggest Conservative Professor Wins Election.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, October 13, 2019.

[3] Foroudi, Layli. “Nabil Karoui: The Jailed Populist Seeking Tunisia’s Presidency.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, September 13, 2019.

[4] Parker, Claire, and Kareem Fahim. “Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi Dies at 92.” The Washington Post. WP Company, July 25, 2019.

[5] “Tunisia’s Elections, Explained: The World’s Youngest Democracy Votes.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed October 19, 2019.