Days before campaigning began for Tunisia’s presidential election, Nabil Karoui, a television tycoon and the populist frontrunner in the poll, was arrested and thrown in jail.
His supporters blame Youssef Chahed, the prime minister and a competitor in the presidential race, for the decision to resurrect the 2016 allegations of tax evasion and money laundering. Mr Karoui has denied all the charges and, unless convicted, will be able to stand in the September 15 poll, even if he is still in jail.
His arrest and the presence of more than 20 other candidates on the ballot paper have added to the uncertainty about who will secure the top job in the Arab world’s only democracy. In a line up that also includes Tunisia’s defence minister and a senior Islamist leader backed by the largest party in parliament, few would predict who the next president will be — a rarity in a region where political change through the ballot box remains unusual.
“Unlike everywhere else in the Arab world, it will be up to the people to vote and select the next president,” said Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based analyst at the Columbia Global Center, part of Columbia University. Of the Arab countries that rose up against dictatorship in 2011, Tunisia is considered the only successful example of a democratic transition.
Unlike in the other elections held since 2011, the bitter polarisation between Islamists and their secular opponents that almost scuppered the transition in its early years has largely faded, a development commentators see as positive.
Nahda, the party rooted in the country’s Islamist movement and the biggest force in parliament, has emphasised its moderate credentials and willingness to compromise with its political rivals. Years of austerity and tough economic conditions have meant that voters are less focused on ideology and more on declining living standards.
“We have been saying that ideology is not the issue,” said Said Ferjani, a senior Nahda leader. “You have to deliver to citizens their needs and to deliver prosperity. Even among our base, ideology has faded and people want jobs, better healthcare and better education and infrastructure. The rest has become increasingly irrelevant.”
The secular camp has also fractured into several groups, according to Hamza Meddeb, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center think-tank. “Many of them have been allies of the Islamists in government, so they cannot mobilise a narrative of protecting society from the Islamists.”
This has all contributed to the rise of Mr Karoui, founder of the Nessma TV channel.
Dubbed Tunisia’s equivalent of the Italian media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, Mr Karoui previously backed Nidaa Tunis, the party that brought together remnants of the old regime, secular and rightwing figures to fight Nahda in the last elections. The 56-year-old has since formed his own party, Qalb Tunis.
Even though the accusations against him have long been common knowledge, his frequent TV appearances and philanthropy on camera — such as funding medical treatment for the poor — have secured him a large following.
This largesse has resonated with Tunisia’s voters who are struggling to get by in an economy battered by political uncertainty and terrorism attacks. Under a loan agreement with the IMF, the government has had to cut spending and contain the civil service wage bill. This led to periodic outbursts of widespread rioting by people angry at joblessness and austerity measures.
Unless Mr Karoui is convicted before the election — which appears unlikely because of the short timeframe, analysts said — his name will be on the ballot.
The most recent opinion poll, published in July before his arrest, forecast his party would secure 30 per cent of the vote, compared with 17 per cent for Nahda.
“Karoui has been clearly focusing on poor people and clearly arguing that they have been abandoned,” said Mr Meddeb. “He is playing the part of anti-establishment even if he is establishment in every way.”