Tunisia’s influential Islamist-inspired party Ennahdha said Friday it will support law professor and political outsider Kais Saied in a presidential runoff against jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui.
The latest twist in the electoral race came a day after the North African country’s longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011, died in exile in Saudi Arabia.
“Ennahdha has chosen to support the people’s choice,” the party’s spokesman Imed Khemiri told AFP after last Sunday’s first round of polling, in which Saied finished ahead with 18.4 percent of the vote.
The surprise result of the election, contested by more than 20 candidates, thrust to the fore both Saied and Karoui.
Karoui came second with 15.6 percent, according to the electoral commission ISIE.
Ennahdha, a key force in parliament, followed with 12.9 percent with its first-ever candidate for the presidency, Abdelfattah Mourou.
International Crisis Group analyst Michael Ayari said Ennahdha’s established role on Tunisia’s political scene could have pros and cons for Saied.
“Many pro-Ennahdha young people voted for Kais Saied in the first round,” Ayari said.
But, he added, Ennahdha’s endorsement might not go down well among anti-Islamist supporters of Saied.
The first round result was a major upset for Tunisia’s political establishment, in place since the fall of Ben Ali over eight years ago after mass protests that sparked the Arab Spring revolts.
On the post-Ben Ali political front, Saied, a fiercely independent academic aged 61, advocates a radical decentralization of power, with local democracy and the ability to remove elected officials during their mandates.
He is seen as strongly conservative on social issues, and has defended the death penalty, criminalization of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.
Karoui, a 56-year-old media mogul, has been held in prison since August 23 under investigation for alleged money laundering.
He remains eligible to run as long as any conviction does not also specifically deprive him of his civil rights, according to ISIE.
Karoui has used his popular television channel Nessma to launch high-profile charity campaigns, often appearing in designer suits as he criss-crossed the country to meet with some of its poorest residents before his incarceration.