Conservative academic Kais Saied, a political outsider, was headed for a landslide victory Sunday in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, sweeping aside his rival, media magnate Nabil Karoui, exit polls said.
In a contest which reflected Tunisia’s shifting post-revolution political landscape, Mr. Saied, an Independent, scooped almost 77% of the vote, compared to 23% for Mr. Karoui, Wataniya television said.
Another exit poll from market research group Emrhod gave him almost 73% of the vote.
The official results are expected on Monday, but news of the projected victory triggered celebrations at the retired law professor’s election campaign offices in central Tunis, as fireworks were set off outside and supporters honked car horns.
In his first reaction, Mr. Saied thanked the country’s young people “for turning a new page,” and vowed to try to build “a new Tunisia”.
“Kais Saied, voice of the people,” a gathered crowd chanted. “Long live Tunisia!”
“We are very happy. Tunisia has an honest man at the helm now. The difference between the two candidates was the work he has been doing,” said Mustafa El Ghali, a family member.
The runoff was contested by two political newcomers — pitting Saied nicknamed “Robocop” against businessman, Karoui, who is dubbed Tunisia’s “Berlusconi”.
They trounced the old guard in a September 15 first round, highlighting voter anger over a stagnant economy, joblessness and poor public services in the cradle of the Arab Spring.
Adding controversy and suspense to the contest, Mr. Karoui only walked free on Wednesday, having spent more than a month behind bars on suspicion of money-laundering.
The poll, Tunisia’s second free presidential elections since its 2011 revolt, followed the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi in July. Turnout was higher than in the first round, and estimated at around 57%.
In one polling station, voters said they were divided between “the one who will apply the law” and the one “who helps the poor,” referring to a charity television show that boosted Mr. Karoui’s popularity.
The 56-year-old business tycoon Karoui portrayed himself as a bulwark against political Islam, which he accused his rival of supporting.
Mr. Saied, a 61-year-old constitutional law expert, whose low-cost, door-to-door campaign caught fire in the country, called for Tunisians “to make a choice today in complete freedom”.
“You have created a new concept of revolution, let your conscience guide you,” he said, casting his ballot.
Mr. Saied campaigned upon the values of the 2011 revolution, based on opposition to Westernised and corrupt elites, and in favour of radical decentralisation.
“Congratulations to Tunisia; less for whom they voted, and more for showing a continued commitment to resolving differences via peaceful transitions,” said H.A Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, in a tweet.
For what was the third election in four weeks, some Tunisians organised car-sharing and free transport for students who had to travel far to their hometowns to cast their ballots.
“I am doing it out of love for my country. I support the one who embodies hope for Tunisia,” said taxi driver Bakri who offered free rides to Saied supporters between Tunis and the coastal city of Nabeul.
The Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, which won the most seats in Parliament in general elections earlier this month, had called on supporters to back Mr. Saied.
But the runoff outcome had remained uncertain, with a ban on opinion polls.
Mr. Saied topped the first round with 18.4 percent of votes, while Karoui followed with 15.6 percent.
While the candidates were both seen as anti-establishment figures, the contrast between them was sharp, with Mr. Saied earning his nickname for his rigid and austere manner.
A social conservative, he has defended the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.
Mr. Saied taught at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences for nearly two decades.
Mr. Karoui presented himself as a candidate for the poor and the appeal of the flamboyant candidate, who always appeared in designer suits, stemmed largely from his media empire and philanthropic activity.
After the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Nessma TV channel that Mr. Karoui turned from entertainment programming towards news, becoming one of Tunisia’s largest private broadcasters.
Mr. Karoui has dismissed the allegations against him as politically motivated.