TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A conservative, Islamist-backed law professor looked set to assume Tunisia’s presidency after polling agencies suggested he overwhelmingly won Sunday’s runoff election in the country that unleashed the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.
Kais Saied’s supporters exploded with joy, celebrating on the main boulevard of Tunis, and Saied thanked his supporters and announced plans to travel to neighboring Libya and Algeria and to champion the Palestinian cause.
Official results of the topsy-turvy election — in which Saied’s rival, Nabil Karoui, spent most of the campaign behind bars — weren’t expected until Tuesday.
The winner inherits a North African country struggling to create jobs, revive tourism and overcome sporadic extremist violence — but proud of its still-budding democracy. This is only Tunisia’s second free presidential election.
Polls carried in Tunisian media by Sigma Conseil and Emhrod Consulting forecast that Saied would come out on top with between 72% and 77% of the votes. Media magnate Karoui was projected to win between 23% and 27%.
The polling agencies questioned several thousand people in person in various constituencies on voting day. Emhrod Consulting said its poll had a margin of error of two percentage points, while Sigma Conseil said its margin of error was 1.5 points.
Saied, 61, is an independent outsider but is supported by moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, which won last week’s parliamentary elections. He promised to overturn Tunisia’s governing structure, handing more power to young people and local governments.
“A new page in history is turning,” he told reporters in Tunis after the polls came out.
A former constitutional law professor, Saied promised to uphold Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, saying, “No one will be above the law.”
Despite the backing of Ennahdha, he described himself as politically neutral.
“I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life,” he said during the campaign.
Firmly conservative, Saied opposes equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons, arguing that the hot-button issue is decided by the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
With poker-straight posture, a blank visage and a staccato speaking style — in literary Arabic inaccessible to many in the rural interior — he has been assigned the nickname “Robocop.”
A 2013 TV show with a hidden camera, and Saied as guest, created a fake earthquake in the studio. Things banged, the table shook violently, along with Saied’s chair.He sat impassively, at one point only looking at his watch.
During the presidential race, Saied shunned political rallies, preferring to run his campaign from discreet locations like cafes, or let young people rally support.
He enjoyed an enthusiastic youth campaign machine that cheered him on Twitter, and backing from the No. 1 and No. 3 parties in the new parliament: the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha and the Al Karama Coalition, led by a radical Islamist lawyer.
Voters lined up even before polls opened in the capital, Tunis, choosing between two candidates who have never held political office.
The only thing Saied and Karoui had in common was their outsider status. Both rose to the runoff on the disenchantment of Tunisians, particularly young people and the poor, who feel the governing class hasn’t fulfilled the promises of the 2011 “jasmine revolution” that unleashed revolts around the Arab world.
“I just hope that everything that will happen in the next five years will be better for Tunisia,” said voter Elfi Zaouarda, casting a ballot in Tunis.
More than 100,000 police, soldiers and security forces guarded polling stations, and thousands of local and foreign observers monitored the vote.
Karoui, a glib, 56-year-old media mogul, spent most of the campaign in jail on accusations of money laundering and tax evasion that he calls politically driven.
During an unprecedented TV debate, Karoui promised to combat extremist violence by “attacking at its roots” and raising economic prospects in struggling provinces that are fertile recruiting grounds for the Islamic State group and other extremists.
He said he would seek partnerships with companies such as Microsoft, Google and Netflix to create jobs, and holds up women as pillars of society.
After their televised debate Friday, they cordially shook hands — a gesture Tunisians celebrated as a sign that their democracy is on the right track.
But Tunisia’s next president has tough challenges ahead leading this country of 11 million people. In addition to economic and security troubles, Tunisia is both a source of migrants trying to reach Europe and a transit country for migrant trafficking from elsewhere in Africa.
The new president will also have to work with a fractious parliament, the result of legislative elections last week that gave no party a clear majority.
The presidential vote was held early following the July death in office of President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Associated Press journalists Elaine Ganley in Paris and Nadine Achoui-Lesage in Tunis contributed to this report.