Nabil Karoui and Kais Saied: the frontrunners in the Tunisian presidential election

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a presidential hopeful whose popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and the rising cost of living, could well turn out to be the election’s biggest loser, figures by the electoral commission showed.

With more than 50 percent of the ballots counted in the country’s second poll since the Arab Spring in 2011, ISIE figures showed Chahed trailing in the fifth place with 7.4 percent of the vote.

He is behind both Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party candidate Abdelfattah Mourou and former defence minister Abdelkarim Zbidi.

The frontrunners are law professor and political outsider Kais Saied and media magnate Nabil Karoui.

Saied is in front with 18.7 percent. Karoui has 15.5 percent.

“The anti-system strategy has won,” ISIE member Adil Brinsi told AFP, but added: “It’s not finished yet. Mourou could very easily move from third to second place, in front of Karoui.”

Local papers splashed photos across their front pages of Saied and Karoui after exit polls showed they had likely qualified for the second round of voting.

“Political earthquake,” read the headline of Arabic language Echourouk newspaper, while Francophone Le Temps entitled its editorial “The Slap”.

The result was a major upset for Tunisia’s political establishment, in place since the uprising eight years ago that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

It could usher in a period of uncertainty for the fledgling north African democracy, the sole success story of the Arab Spring revolts.

ISIE reported low turnout at 45 percent, down from 64 percent in the country’s first democratic polls in 2014.

“The abstention was a sign of a rejection of the system rather than disinterest,” said political scientist Hamza Meddeb.

“People are fed up with a political class which failed to respond to their economic and social expectations.”

Late Sunday, Chahed urged liberals and centrists to unite for legislative elections set for October 6, saying low participation was “bad for the democratic transition”.

The election comes against a backdrop of serious social and economic challenges.

Karoui, a 56-year-old media magnate, has been behind bars since August 23 on charges of money laundering.

Tunisia’s judiciary has refused to release him three times, but his lawyers said Monday they would make a fourth request within 24 hours.

“Nabil Karoui is combative, optimistic, and he is only asking for one thing: to finally be free to exercise his rights,” said lawyer Mohamed Zaanouni.

A controversial businessman, labelled a “populist” by critics, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.