conservative academic Kais Saied, a political outsider, won a landslide victory Sunday in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, sweeping aside his rival, media magnate Nabil Karoui, state television said.
In a contest which reflected Tunisia’s shifting post-revolution political landscape, Saied, an independent, scooped almost 77 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for Karoui, Wataniya television said.
News of the victory triggered celebrations at the retired law professor’s election campaign offices in central Tunis, as fireworks were set off outside and supporters honked car horns.
“Kais Saied, voice of the people,” a gathered crowd chanted. “Long live Tunisia!”
“We are very happy. Tunisia has an honest man at the helm now. The difference between the two candidates was the work he has been doing,” said Mustafa El Ghali, a family member.
The runoff was contested by two political newcomers — pitting Saied who is nicknamed “Robocop” against the businessman who is dubbed Tunisia’s “Berlusconi”.
They trounced the old guard in a September 15 first round, highlighting voter anger over a stagnant economy, joblessness and poor public services in the cradle of the Arab Spring.
Adding controversy and suspense to the contest, Karoui only walked free on Wednesday, having spent more than a month behind bars on suspicion of money-laundering.
The poll, Tunisia’s second free presidential elections since its 2011 revolt, followed the death of president Beji Caid Essebsi in July.
In one polling station, voters said they were divided between “the one who will apply the law” and the one “who helps the poor,” referring to a charity television show that boosted Karoui’s popularity.
The 56-year-old business tycoon Karoui portrayed himself as a bulwark against political Islam, which he accused his rival of supporting.
Saied, a 61-year-old constitutional law expert, called for Tunisians “to make a choice today in complete freedom”.
“You have created a new concept of revolution, let your conscience guide you,” he said, casting his ballot.
Saied campaigned upon the values of the 2011 revolution, based on opposition to Westernised and corrupt elites, and in favour of radical decentralisation.
Some Tunisians had organised car-sharing and free transport for students who had to travel far to their hometowns to cast their ballots.
“I am doing it out of love for my country. I support the one who embodies hope for Tunisia,” said taxi driver Bakri who offered free rides to Saied supporters between Tunis and the coastal city of Nabeul.
The runoff outcome had remained uncertain, with a ban on opinion polls.
Saied topped the first round with 18.4 percent of votes, while Karoui followed with 15.6 percent.
While the candidates were both seen as anti-establishment figures, the contrast between them was sharp, with Saied earning his nickname for his rigid and austere manner.
A social conservative, he has defended the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.
Saied taught at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences for nearly two decades.
He launched an unorthodox low-cost election campaign that saw him shun mass rallies and instead canvass door-to-door.
Karoui presented himself as a candidate for the poor and the appeal of the flamboyant candidate, who always appeared in designer suits, stemmed largely from his media empire and philanthropic activity.
After the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Nessma TV channel that Karoui founded turned from entertainment programming towards news, becoming one of Tunisia’s largest private broadcasters.
Karoui has dismissed the allegations against him as politically motivated.