Jailed tycoon and professor in Tunisia’s presidential runoff

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This combination photo shows Nabil Karoui speaking to press after his trial in Tunis, Jan. 23, 2012, left, and Kais Saied speaking to the media in Tunis, Sept. 17, 2019. Tunisia’s electoral authority says on Tuesday, Sept. 17 that jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui and independent law professor Kais Saied are advancing to the country’s presidential election runoff. The electoral commission has announced that the two outsider candidates have come out on top in the first round of voting. (AP Photo)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui and independent law professor Kais Saied will advance to Tunisia’s presidential runoff, sending the North African nation’s young democracy into an unprecedented electoral battle.

Tunisia’s electoral commission said Tuesday the two candidates came out on top of the 26 running in Sunday’s first round of voting, Saied with 18.4% support and Karoui with 15.6%. It was the country’s second democratic presidential election since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocratic Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, unleashing the Arab Spring uprisings across the region.

The first-round results left Tunisia with a very conservative constitutional law professor who apparently has little money to campaign pitted against a media-savvy communicator with progressive views and the means to publicize them but who has been jailed since last month.

The date for the presidential runoff hasn’t yet been announced, but the electoral body said it would be held by Oct. 13.

Neither runoff candidate has ever held political office. They beat out two prime ministers and the candidate for the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, whose party is the biggest force in parliament. Mourou placed third with 12.9% of the vote.

The election’s low turnout — officially 49% — may have favored candidates from outside the political system.

Karoui’s lawyers are seeking his release from jail before the presidential runoff. Accused of tax evasion and money laundering, Karoui says he’s the victim of a smear campaign. The 56-year-old was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.

Questions loom as to how Karoui, who is co-founder of the private Nessma TV network, can campaign on an even footing ahead of the runoff if he remains behind bars, or what happens if he wins.

Electoral commission chief Nabil Baffoun told a news conference Tuesday that the body would ask judicial officials to give Karoui “the opportunity to address voters,” but did not say whether they would ask that he be freed.

An earlier demand for his freedom by the candidate’s lawyers was rejected.

Sunday’s vote was called early after the death in office in July of President Beji Caid Essebsi.Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 6, another political challenge, since the new president’s success will depend on having support from lawmakers.

The 61-year-old Saied, who is not affiliated with any political party, appears to be the ultimate outsider.

“I’m not in competition or in a race with anyone,” he told The Associated Press at his office in central Tunis shortly before official preliminary results were announced, adding that Tunisians “are free to choose who they want.”

Considered very conservative, Saied is opposed to treating men and women equally in inheritance issues, a proposal of the deceased leader Caid Essebsi that never made it into law.He suggested that he would remain outside the party system, saying, “I have lived independent and I will remain independent.”

Karoui, meanwhile, positioned himself as the candidate of the poor, notably using his TV network to raise money for charity.His wife took to the campaign trail after he was jailed.

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Elaine Ganley contributed from Paris.

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