Law professor Kais Saied is set to become Tunisia’s next president after a landslide victory in the country’s presidential election runoff on Sunday. Saied won 76.9 percent of the vote, handily beating his opponent Nabil Karoui, a media mogul who was held in remand detention for most of the election campaign on corruption charges. The electoral commission said 55 percent of those registered to vote cast ballots in the runoff.
Shortly after the exit polls were released on Sunday, Saied appeared in front of supporters in Tunis and thanked “young people for turning a new page” in Tunisia’s history. “We will try to build a new Tunisia. Young people led this campaign, and I am accountable to them,” he said.
Both runoff candidates were political outsiders who had never held public office. Saied, who is not a member of a political party, spent years teaching constitutional law at a university in Tunis until he retired in 2018 to launch his political campaign. He was on the committee of experts that helped parliament draft Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, which was adopted in 2014.
The president-elect has promised sweeping reforms, including replacing the country’s parliamentary system with local elections for regional representatives. He is also in favor of the death penalty, suspended in Tunisia since 1994, and opposes a law under discussion that would give Tunisians the right to distribute inheritances equally between male and female heirs.
The vote on Sunday was the country’s second presidential election since the 2011 revolution that toppled former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The vote was called after President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was first elected in 2014, died in July.
A few days before the runoff vote, parliamentary elections concluded with most seats going to the Islamist Ennahda Party, which backed Saied, with 52 seats out of 217 seats. The Heart of Tunisia party, led by Karoui, came in second with 38 seats, followed by the Democratic Current Party with 22 seats. The Dignity Coalition won 21 seats, followed by the Constitutional Party with 17 seats, the People’s Movement with 16 seats, and the Tahya Tounes party, led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, with 14 seats.
Mada Masr spoke to Thameur Mekki, editor-in-chief of Nawaat, an independent media outlet in Tunis, about Saied and the prospects for his presidency.
Mada Masr: Observers describe Kais Saied as politically to the left of the state but to the right of society. Do you agree with this description?
Thameur Mekki: It is true that he is to the left of the state and the dominant political class but also, in a way, on the right when it comes to the discourse on individual freedoms. While civil society organizations have adopted this discourse, these issues have not yet been adopted by society as a whole. This discourse does represent a part of Tunisian society, but it is important to note that it remains a minority view.
He is to the left of the state with regards to the dominant political class in Tunisia looking to privatize struggling public entities, and while the government is heading towards signing a deal with the European Union that would further liberalize Tunisian economic policy. Instead, Kais Saied continually stresses the importance of the social role the state should play, and reminds people of the economic role the state played in the 1960s and 70s, and the importance of working towards social justice.
Mada Masr: Kais Saied proposed reorganizing the parliamentary system so that local elected councils plan regional projects and these regions are then represented in parliament. To what extent do you see this is possible?
Thameur Mekki: In reality, I think the possibility of achieving this is limited. Kais Saied was supported by the Ennahda Party, which has the largest parliamentary bloc (52 members) as well as the support of the third largest parliamentary bloc, the Democratic Current Party (22 seats), and the fourth largest bloc, the Dignity Coalition (21 seats). If you add the remaining parliamentary blocs — whether parties or independent lists — that announced their support, you will find that in this sense Kais Saied has the majority backing him. But this backing does not necessarily translate into support for a complete reorganization of the parliamentary system. This is because most of the members of parliament in these blocs participated in drafting the constitution, and it would be extremely odd if they went on to support such a legislative initiative and a subsequent amendment to the constitution, especially since there is no constitutional court at the moment.
When Kais Saied faced criticism for the improbability of passing these reforms, he said politicians should shoulder their political responsibility to the people. This might suggest holding a referendum on the issue, which could result in an awkward standoff. I don’t believe the political class would support such a measure, especially given the various and complex stages required to call for a referendum, the first of which is establishing a constitutional court which has been suspended since 2015 because of the inability of political parties to agree on the two thirds of parliament that will select the judges to sit on the court.
But we have gotten used to the ability of politics in Tunisia to take us by surprise. The fact that Saeid will now be president was a surprise when he won in the first round.
Mada Masr: What do you expect the president-elect’s priorities to be in the coming period?
Thameur Mekki: I don’t believe that his priorities are clear at the moment, but establishing a constitutional court will be one priority, especially given that he is a constitutional law professor and is aware of the importance of this court to achieve his goals. But what role he will play in this and what the result will be is another story that remains unclear.
The second priority will be forming his team, especially because he does not come from a political party — therefore, forming a team of advisors will be a particularly difficult task.
He is someone who is always trying to surprise, so we could create a list of issues that he might prioritize, but he could end up surprising us with something completely different.
Mada Masr: Which of the parties in parliament do you believe will be the closest to him and his program?
Thameur Mekki: It is difficult to name a party close to the Kais Saied program, because he does not have a clear program, but rather a set of legal reforms that could enable citizens to express their opinion and make decisions in a more representative manner. He does not have an economic, social, cultural or security program that is clearly defined. He has a group of principles and a program that he described as a set of legal tools that can enable people to achieve their goals. So the program is not like any other party’s but we can say that the party most in line with his principles are the Democratic Current Party, which came third in parliament.