A retired law professor with an awkward public manner, little money, no political party and a commitment to an experimental form of direct democracy looks set to become Tunisia’s new president.
Two exit polls projected that Kais Saied handily won Sunday’s runoff election against media magnate Nabil Karoui, though no formal results have been announced.
Saied won the support of both Islamists and leftists, though his radical but socially conservative politics do not neatly chime with either group. It has left both his critics and supporters scrambling to define him.
“I did not make traditional promises or a traditional program … but new ideas that can be realized.. today we entered a new stage in the history of Tunisia,” he told Reuters after the first round of the election in September.
Tunisians also gave him most votes in the first round against an array of veteran political leaders, the sharpest rejection of Tunisia’s ruling elite since the 2011 uprising that ushered in democratic rule.
“He convinced us that change is possible and in our own hands,” said Bassam Naffati, a 22-year-old biology student who volunteered for Saied’s campaign.
The balding, 61-year-old, speaking in his usual ultra-formal style of classical Arabic, has described his success as “like a new revolution”.
Though he did well in opinion polls for months, his lack of an established political or media base made him something of a dark horse and a less familiar figure to many Tunisians than Karoui.
Both are relative outsiders, but they are very different.
The wealthy, slickly presented Karoui has a television station and a large election team. He spent most of the election period in custody on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering, which he denies.
Supporters of Saied, who spent so little on his campaign that Tunisians say it cost the price of a coffee and a packet of cigarettes, present him as a paragon of personal integrity.
His austere approach is plain in his campaign headquarters: a small upstairs apartment in an old downtown building with no elevator, broken windows and peeling paintwork equipped with little more than a small television and some plastic chairs.
“I knew him up close in 2011 after the revolution, during the first movement of youth against the old guard. He was one of the few who understood our demands. He listened to us,” said Sonia Chriti, 40, a former student of Saied.
A former law faculty colleague, Jawher Ben Mubarek, said that during those tumultuous days they would wander late into the night through the narrow streets of the Kasbah and the grand colonial boulevards downtown, discussing politics.
“We would stop a lot and talk to the protesters about their demands,” he said.
In his office, the supporters gathered there included hijab-wearing conservatives, left-wing students, unemployed workers and university professors.
His conservative social views – favoring the death penalty and opposing homosexuality and equal inheritance for men and women – appear to have won him much support among Islamists.
However, Ben Mubarek, who has known Saied for many years, says he is neither an Islamist nor a fundamentalist. He has spoken against changing the constitution to base it on Islamic law and his wife, a judge, does not wear a headscarf.
He has urged a crackdown on foreign money in Tunisia, including on spending by non-government and civil society organizations, which he sees threatening Tunisian society.
The stripped-back campaign had no formal manager, but Saied’s closest adviser is Rida Mekki, a veteran leftwinger whose popular nickname is “Rida Lenin”. It was their collaboration over the past few years that pushed him from being an academic into politics, said Ben Mubarek.