Tunisia will hold on Sunday its second free presidential election by universal suffrage since the 2011 uprising that toppled an autocratic regime, with growing uncertainty over who will reach the next round.
Twenty-six candidates are in the race, including the incumbent prime minister and a media magnate who was arrested just weeks before the polls, as well as a presidential hopeful put forth by a secular party.
Seven million voters are expected to head to the ballot box after a campaign that largely focused on social and economic challenges that have plagued the North African country’s fledgling democracy.
“There are favourites and everything is possible, but even God cannot predict the results of the first round, let alone what will happen next,” columnist Ziyed Krichen said.
Political analyst Hatem Mrad agreed. “This election is really one of uncertainties,” he said.
Tunisia has been praised as a rare success story for democratic transition after the Arab Spring regional uprisings sparked by its 2011 revolution.
Three years later, it held its first post-revolution election, during which the political fault lines were clear, said Mrad, with radicals squaring off against modernists.
But this time around, the differences are huge, with a plethora of candidates — secularists, populists and partisans of the toppled regime — political programmes and issues, he added.
Preliminary results are expected to be announced by the electoral commission on September 17, but the date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known.
Heavyweight candidates include Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and his nemesis Nabil Karoui, the media magnate arrested on charges of money laundering just three weeks before the election.
Karoui’s supporters accuse Chahed of orchestrating his arrest, a charge denied by the ambitious prime minister who became the country’s youngest ever head of government in 2016 at age 40.
That charge has also been denied by the deputy prosecutor of the court of appeal in Tunis, Ibrahim Bouslah, who has told AFP that “we are not acting under the pressure of… politics”.
But Bouslah described the affair as unprecedented in Tunisia and said it could result in a legal stalemate if Karoui wins, noting that presidential immunity cannot be applied retroactively to cases that precede incumbency.
A controversial businessman, Karoui has built his popularity by using his own Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.
On Wednesday, the jailed candidate started a hunger strike, according to a member of his defence team, Ridha Belhaj.
And on Friday, an appeal to have the mogul released from prison ahead of the poll was rejected, his party and lawyers said, adding that another application for his release would be submitted shortly.
Studies suggest that his arrest boosted his popularity, and observers say that if Karoui makes it to the second round of voting, it will be hard for authorities to justify keeping him behind bars without a trial.
Also in the race is lawyer Abdelfattah Mourou, 71, who was selected to run by the secular Ennahdha party, and Mohammed Abbou, who was imprisoned under the ousted regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Candidates also include defence minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who said he would “restart the social ladder” and make public services accessible to all Tunisians, if elected.
Two women are also eyeing the presidency, including Abir Moussi, a staunch lawyer and champion of Ben Ali’s regime.
The presidential campaign wraps up on Friday, but none of the candidates appears to have stood out despite squaring off in multiple debates that were broadcast on radio and television.
Around two to three million Tunisians are believed to have tuned in to three major debates, during which candidates were asked to respond to questions drawn randomly.
The economic and social hardships that undermine Tunisia’s transition to democracy took centre stage during the campaign.
The country, hit by attacks against its key tourism sector and security forces, has struggled to combat unemployment and bring down inflation.
Unemployment in Tunisia is at 15 percent, while the cost of living has increased by more than 30 percent since 2016.
The election was brought forward from November after the death in July of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first president democratically elected in nationwide polls in 2014.
It will be followed by legislative elections, due to take place on October 6.
Some of the 26 hopefuls have called for the president’s powers to be beefed up in Tunisia, which has a parliamentary system.