TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui was freed on Wednesday after spending the election campaign in a prison cell, though he managed to come second in the first round and now faces a runoff with independent lawyer Kais Saied on Oct. 13.
Though he has now been released, the bizarre situation could still cause a constitutional crisis just as Tunisia is trying to strengthen its democracy, eight years after the revolution that ended decades of autocratic rule and inspired the Arab Spring.
Karoui’s supporters see him as a secular, liberal champion of Tunisia’s poor while his opponents regard him as a corrupt, ambitious populist.
He owns Nessma TV, one of Tunisia’s most-watched news outlets. Its support was instrumental in helping a secular party win parliamentary elections in 2014, although Karoui later split with the movement’s leadership.
Karoui then founded a charity to alleviate poverty, a cause also taken up by Nessma which broadcasts reports critical of the government and supportive of his own philanthropic work.
Nessma TV has no official licence but Karoui has ignored orders from Tunisia’s media regulator to pull the plug, saying the demands are politically motivated.
Parliament has also passed legislation barring candidates who have received foreign or charitable donations in the year before an election - which would have disqualified Karoui - but the former president died in July before signing it into law.
Tunisian anti-corruption group I Watch, an accredited chapter of Transparency International, brought a case against Karoui in 2016, accusing him of money laundering and tax fraud.
Three weeks before the first round of the election on Sept. 15, Karoui was arrested over the 2016 case and he was behind bars in pre-trial detention until Wednesday - a period covering the entire electoral campaign so far.
Karoui has denied all wrongdoing and his proxies accuse the judiciary of ordering his detention at the behest of political rivals to keep him from power.
Last week, a regional news website reported that a lobbying contract had been signed on his behalf in the United States with a Canadian company. If proven, it could also be interpreted as a breach of electoral rules. Karoui has denied involvement.
Judges had turned down requests to release Karoui four times before Wednesday, ordering him to remain in detention until there is a verdict, though it is unclear when that might happen.
His lawyer told Reuters only that an appeals court had set him free on Wednesday, but without giving any further details.
The independent election commission has ruled that Karoui can run as long he has not been found guilty. It has also ruled that his use of the unlicensed Nessma TV did not disqualify him.
Last week, interim president Mohamed Ennaceur said Karoui’s continued detention and inability to campaign had damaged the credibility of the elections.
Eight years since autocrat President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, Tunisia is still trying to establish democratic norms. Its economy needs close government attention as foreign lenders are demanding fiscal tightening and unemployment is running as high as 30% in some cities.
The president’s power was diluted after the 2011 uprising so the winner would only be in charge directly of foreign and security policy. Parliament gets first go at choosing a prime minister, whose government controls almost all other portfolios.
But a new parliament elected on Oct. 6 is deeply fractured, complicating the process of building a governing coalition and potentially putting more sway into the president’s hands.
If the main party in parliament cannot form a coalition, the president gets to nominate his own candidate to try instead.
If all that fails, there will be another parliamentary election. If the presidential election also needs to be re-run because of Karoui’s legal situation, it could trigger Tunisia’s biggest crisis since its revolution.
Karoui won 15.6% of the vote in the first round, behind Saied who won 18.4%. In Sunday’s parliamentary election, Karoui’s “Heart of Tunisia” party fielded candidates across the country. Exit polls show it came second, again with 15.6%, though official results have yet to be released.
Karoui has been unable to campaign in person, either at the hustings, in Tunisia’s first televised presidential debates last month, or in media interviews.
However, his campaign has been active across Tunisia, with his wife Saloua Samoui often appearing in the media.
Saied suspended his campaign, saying the election must be fought on a level playing field.
If Karoui loses the election, he may have grounds to appeal given he spent most of the campaign behind bars. The electoral commission has already warned that his detention may infringe election rules.
Saied could also appeal a Karoui victory, particularly if the allegations regarding the lobbying contract are proven.
If Karoui is detained again and wins, it is not clear if he can be sworn in without leaving his prison cell to attend the ceremony in parliament.
If he is subsequently found guilty of money laundering and tax fraud, it is not clear whether presidential immunity would apply to crimes committed before the election.
The 2014 constitution said disputes should be settled by a constitutional court. But it has not yet been set up as parliament has been too divided to agree on judges.
If the president is not sworn in within 45 days, Tunisians must vote again.
Reporting by Angus McDowall in Tunis; Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis; Editing by David Clarke and Matthew Lewis