Kais Saied, a political outsider backed by Islamists and leftist and plans to remake national politics, won a landslide victory in Tunisia’s presidential election he hailed a “new revolution”.
Saied won 73% of the votes cast in Sunday’s election according to preliminary official results released by the electoral commission and turnout was 55%. His opponent, Nabil Karoui, conceded defeat.
Saied’s victory is a stinging rebuke for a governing elite that 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”.
Saied, a 61-year-old retired law professor, plans to introduce an experimental form of direct democracy. He has no political party of his own and faces challenges including high inflation and unemployment.
“What I have done is a new revolution,” Saied told supporters at his home in the Mnihla district on the outskirts of Tunis after his landslide victory became clear. “I tell Tunisians you impressed the world.”
Large crowds waving Tunisian flags and chanting old songs and slogans from the 2011 uprising filled the central Habib Bourguiba Street on Sunday and celebrated into Monday.
Olfa Radouan, a 53-year-old woman who brought her husband and two children to celebrate Saied’s victory, understood he would face major challenges.
“It will not be easy. He will face a complicated political situation, a difficult economic situation and unstoppable social demands,” she said.
Exit polls gave Saied a huge lead soon after voting ended on Sunday his opponent left the possibility of appealing the result open.
Nabil Karoui, a media mogul, was detained in August pending a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion – accusations which he denies – and was released last Wednesday. Karoui conceded defeat and congratulated him before the preliminary results were announced.
Even with a large mandate, the new president has less direct control of policy than the prime minister and both will face tough challenges.
Tunisia has a deeply fragmented legislature in which the largest party, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, has 52 of 219 seats.
As the biggest party, Ennahda can name the prime minister, but he will have 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.
Saied won support of both Islamists and leftists his radical but socially conservative politics do not resonate with either group. It has left critics and supporters struggling to define him.
He wants Tunisians to elect small local councils based on the character of their representatives rather than party or ideology. They would in turn choose regional representatives who would choose national ones.
With politicians in Tunis dominating the post-revolutionary era, a period of economic disappointments, that sort of radical decentralisation appeals to many who rose up eight years ago.
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 want fiscal tightening and a reduction of the public sector wage bill.
Those policies are unpopular and the country’s most powerful union has mobilised large numbers and paralysed parts of government with strikes.