Two "anti-system" candidates, including one in prison, claimed Sunday, September 15, their qualification in the second round of presidential elections in Tunisia, after a vote rich in suspense and marked by low participation. According to Tunisian private pollsters Sigma Conseil and Emrhod, independent scholar Kais Saied led the way with about 19% of the vote in front of prison advisor Nabil Karoui, credited with some 15% of the vote.

If they are confirmed, these results are a real thunderbolt that sweeps the Tunisian political class in power since the 2011 revolution, and open a period of great uncertainty in the pioneer country of the Arab Spring. The preliminary official results will only be announced on Tuesday by Isie, the body responsible for the organization of the poll.

"We hope he will be released tomorrow"

"This is an exceptional day for democracy and for the history of the country (...) Today the Tunisian people have chosen two candidates for the second round," said Nabil Karoui in a letter read by his wife Salwa Smaoui, at the headquarters of his party Qalb Tounes. "We hope that he will be released tomorrow and that he will be able to campaign fairly," said Karoui's wife, in front of a crowd of cheering supporters.

Nabil Karoui, 56, has been behind bars since 23 August, under investigation for money laundering and tax evasion. If its qualification in the second round is confirmed, it will be an unprecedented situation in the world. Founder of the private channel Nessma, he has built a strong popularity by organizing charitable operations in disadvantaged areas of the country.

Independent scholar Kais Saied, 61, nicknamed "Robocop" because of his rigid diction and impassive face, said he was "the first of the first round".

Participation rate at 45%

"If I am elected president I will apply my program," he told AFP, in a small dilapidated apartment in central Tunis, surrounded by fifteen people who participated in his campaign. Kais Saied, known to Tunisians for commenting on the political scene on television sets since the 2011 revolution, has no party to support him and had never contested an election campaign.

According to the polls, to be taken with caution, the candidate of the Islamist-inspired party Abdelfattah Mourou, arrives third with 11 to 12%, far ahead of the Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, located between 7 and 8%. Seven million Tunisians were called to ballot for the first round of the poll, the second free presidential election since the revolution of 2011. The participation was 45.02%, said Isie, who called the rate of "acceptable".

In 2014, for the first free presidential election in Tunisia, the participation rate reached 64% in the first round. The poll seems to have been marked by a disaffection of young people, a crucial electorate that the president of Isie, Nabil Baffoun, had urged to go to the polls, in a vehement statement one hour before the end of operations.

"The sign of a very deep disaffection"

"This is the sign of a very deep disaffection, the fed up of a political class that has not responded to economic and social expectations," said political analyst Hamza Meddeb. "The disgust of the political class seems to result in a vote for outsiders," he added, calling Nabil Karoui Kais Saied "anti-system".

After a campaign marked by an apparent resurgence of interest in the only surviving Arab Spring country of 2011, voters had to decide between 26 candidates. The number of competitors, the fragmentation of the political scene, and a growing sense of rejection by "elites" have increased the uncertainty surrounding the ballot. And many voters have admitted to AFP not to know who to vote until the last moment.

A vote in calm

The poll is a "test" for the young Tunisian democracy because it may be necessary "to accept the victory of a cleavage candidate," said the researcher Isabelle Werenfels before the start of the election. The election was conducted in a calm atmosphere. About 70,000 members of the security forces were mobilized, and thousands of observers were deployed by the parties and international institutions in the polling stations.

The parties will now be faced with the challenge of simultaneously preparing the legislative elections of 6 October and the second round of presidential elections, which should be held by 23 October. The calendar was turned upside down by the death, on July 25, of the 92-year-old head of state Beji Caid Essebsi, who forced to anticipate a presidential election initially scheduled for the end of the year.

With AFP