TUNIS (Reuters) - Kais Saied, a political outsider who is backed by leftists and Islamists and wants to remake national politics, is set to become Tunisia’s president after his opponent conceded defeat in Sunday’s election.
Saied’s victory is a stinging rebuke for a governing elite that has failed to improve living standards or end corruption since the 2011 revolution in the North African country that introduced democracy and ushered in the “Arab Spring”. [L5N26U4ZE]
Saied, a 61-year-old retired law professor, has no political party and wants to introduce an experimental form of direct democracy. Supporters who celebrated in the streets after exit polls put him far ahead hailed his triumph as a revival of the revolution.
Nabil Karoui, his only opponent in a run-off vote, spent much of the campaign period in detention and initially kept the door open to lodging an appeal against the results when exit polls on Sunday put Saied on more than 70% of votes.
But Karoui conceded defeat on Monday, several hours before the official results were due to be announced.
“I would like to congratulate you on your election to presidency,” he said, addressing Saied in a statement sent to journalists.
Karoui, a media mogul, was detained in August pending a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion - accusations which he denies. He was released last Wednesday and took part in a televised debate with Saied on Friday.
“What I have done is a new revolution,” Saied told a crowd of supporters gathering at his home in the Mnihla district on the outskirts of Tunis after his landslide victory became clear. “I tell Tunisians that you have impressed the world.”
Large crowds of people waving Tunisian flags and chanting many of the old songs and slogans from the 2011 uprising filled the central Habib Bourguiba Street into Monday morning.
Olfa Radouan, a 53-year-old woman who brought her husband and two children to celebrate Saied’s victory in Bourguiba street, said she understood that he would face big challenges.
“It will not be easy. He will face a complicated political situation, a very difficult economic situation, unstoppable social demands,” she said.
Even with a large mandate, the new president has less direct control of policy than the prime minister and both will quickly face a series of tough challenges.
Tunisia has a deeply fragmented legislature in which the largest party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, has only 52 of the 219 seats.
As the biggest party, Ennahda can name the prime minister, but he will then have only two months to form a governing coalition that can command a majority in parliament - something that may prove highly complex.
If Ennahda’s choice fails to form a government, the new president can name an alternative candidate for prime minister to embark on a new round of coalition talks. If parliament still cannot agree, there would be a new election.
Though Saied has won the support of both Islamists and leftists, his radical but socially conservative politics do not neatly chime with either group. It has left both his critics and supporters struggling to define him.
The government faces unemployment of about 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, inflation of 6.8%, high public debt and a weak dinar.
Foreign lenders including the International Monetary Fund have called for fiscal tightening and a reduction of the public sector wage bill.
Those policies are all deeply unpopular and the country’s powerful union has proven able to mobilise large numbers of people and paralyse parts of the government with strikes.
Reporting by Tarek Amara and Mohammed Argoubi, Writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by Timothy Heritage