Conservative academic Kais Saied Sunday won a landslide victory in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, sweeping aside his rival, media magnate Nabil Karoui, state television Wataniya said.
It said he scooped almost 77 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for Karoui.
Voting had ended at 1700 GMT.
Thousands of supporters of presidential candidate Kais Saied thronged the grand boulevards of central Tunis in celebration late on Sunday after two exit polls said he was elected by a landslide.
Official results will not be published until Monday and Saied's opponent, the media mogul Nabil Karoui, has left the door open to an appeal.
Sunday's vote was only Tunisia's second free presidential election and came after years of economic frustrations that overshadowed the legacy of the 2011 revolution which threw out autocratic rule and inspired the “Arab spring”.
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Saied, a retired law professor backed by both Islamists and leftists, spent barely any money on an election campaign that has seized the imagination of voters with its promise to bring back the values of the 2011 uprising.
“We need to renew confidence between the people and the rulers,” Saied said in televised comments after two separate exit polls gave him more than 70% of the vote.
If he is confirmed as president, Saied will face a difficult moment in Tunisian political history.
The parliament elected last week is deeply fractured and though the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that took most seats backed him on Sunday after its own candidate was beaten in the first round, it may struggle to build a ruling coalition.
The prime minister, chosen by parliament, has more direct powers than the president, but since he is the most senior elected official in Tunisia, he shoulders much of the public praise or blame for the state of the country.
All recent governments have been bedeviled by economic ills: unemployment of 15%, inflation of 6.8%, high public debt, a powerful union that opposes economic reforms and foreign lenders who demand them.
Karoui told a news conference he would decide whether to appeal after the electoral commission announces the official results, but said he had been denied a chance to compete fairly.
Karoui spent weeks in detention pending his corruption trial before he was freed on Wednesday, and spent the first round of the election behind bars.
One of the foreign election monitoring missions in Tunisia said earlier on Sunday that Karoui's detention had raised concerns about the vote, saying it was “not business as usual”.
Karoui denies charges of money laundering and tax evasion, but the verdict in his trial is still pending.
Crowds of Saied supporters began gathering on the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis soon after polls closed, cheering slogans from the 2011 revolution in anticipation of him winning.
Where in 2011 they gathered to chant “the people want the fall of the regime”, on Sunday night they chanted “the people want a strong Saied”, holding candles and setting off fireworks
Elsewhere in the city center, cars drove around the streets,
honking their horns in celebration.
“We are happy because this victory returned the spirit of the revolution,” said one of Saied's supporters there, who gave only his first name Nejib.
'Correct, serious person'
With voter turnout higher than in other recent elections in Tunisia, Sunday's poll appears to have reversed a recent trend of disillusionment with politics.
The electoral commission said after polls closed that turnout would be more than 60%. In the first round of the presidential election, which put Saied and Karoui through to the runoff above 24 other candidates, turnout was only 45%.
The two candidates offered starkly different options for president: Saied has conservative social views, and wants Tunisia to adopt an experimental form of direct democracy.
If his victory is confirmed, his first visit as president would be to Algeria, he said. He also spoke in support of the Palestinian cause.
Karoui courted the poor, showcasing his philanthropy on the television station he owns, but also appealed to the business elite and to some secular Tunisians worried about Saied's conservative social views.
Both candidates presented themselves as outsiders taking on an establishment that has failed to improve Tunisia's economy or arrest a decline in living standards.
The runoff presidential election pitted Saied, an independent law professor, against Karoui, a media mogul facing corruption allegations, after they won more votes than any of the other 24 candidates in the first round last month.
Preliminary turnout figures suggested Sunday’s contest had grabbed the public imagination more than either September’s first round vote or a parliamentary election a week ago.
At 1430 GMT on Sunday, turnout was 39.2% according to the electoral commission. By comparison, on the day of the first round vote it said that turnout at 1400 GMT was 27.8%.
At a polling station in the working class Ettadamon district of Tunis, a man stood haranguing passersby, urging them to vote against Karoui, until a policeman asked him to quieten down.
Inside, Hanan Madouri, a 25-year-old call center worker in a big straw hat, said she was voting for Saied, citing the corruption trial hanging over his opponent. “I want to vote for a correct, serious person,” she said.
The two candidates offer starkly different options for president: Saied has spent almost nothing on his campaign, has the backing of both leftists and Islamists, and wants Tunisia to adopt an experimental form of direct democracy.
Karoui has courted the poor, showcasing his philanthropy on the television station he owns, but has also appealed to the business elite and to some secular Tunisians worried about Saied’s conservative social views.
Karoui was arrested in August and held pending a verdict in his trial for money laundering and tax evasion before a court released him on Wednesday. He denies the accusations against him.
Both candidates present themselves as outsiders taking on an establishment that has failed to improve Tunisia’s economy or arrest a decline in living standards since the 2011 revolution that introduced democracy and inspired the “Arab spring.”
Dissatisfaction with the political elite was evident in both the first round vote and last week’s legislative election, as major parties lost ground, independents did well, and turnout was low.
Opposite the Ettadamon polling station, Othman Dabbousi, 63, sat next to his fruit stand and said he would not vote, preferring a non-democratic system of rule. “There is a lot of chaos in this country and it needs a strong man,” he said.
Nearby, a soldier stood with a hand on her assault rifle watching over the polling station, a reminder of the extremist attacks that have sporadically shaken Tunisia, threatening its tourism industry and alarming voters.
Whoever wins the presidential race, along with any governing coalition that can be forged in the fragmented parliament, will face the same problems that have bedeviled recent governments: unemployment of 15 percent, inflation of 6.8 percent and high public debt.
An international election monitoring team in Tunisia raised concern on Sunday about the fairness of the vote, however, because of Karoui’s detention during much of the run-up to the election including the first round vote.
“This is not business as usual,” said Les Campbell, joint leader of the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute observer mission in Tunisia.
“The playing field was disrupted and that was a significant factor in the election,” the electoral monitor said.
At a polling booth in the upmarket Lac area of northern Tunis where Karoui also voted, 21-year-old student Najwa Salmi said she had travelled from her university in the city of Sousse to vote.
“We want a president who respects his powers... we don’t need one who will bring in his family,” she said, without saying who she would vote for.
She had not voted in either the first-round of the presidential election or in the parliamentary poll.
“But today I vote to support a candidate who will be president of all Tunisians and be fair,” she said.