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Tunisia anti-establishment figures Saied and Karoui say election wins will advance them to run-off

Exit poll conducted by Sigma Conseil suggests Kais Saied has 19.5 percent of vote and Nabil Karoui 15.5 percent
Supporters of Tunisia's jailed presidential candidate Nabil Karoui celebrate at his headquarters in capital Tunis on Sunday (AFP)

Two anti-establishment candidates in Tunisia's divisive election claimed on Sunday to have won through to a run-off, hours after polling closed in the country's second free presidential poll since the 2011 Arab Spring.

But turnout was reported by the elections commission to be 45 percent, down from 64 percent recorded in the first round of the 2014 presidential election.

An exit poll conducted by Sigma Conseil suggested neither candidate had sufficient votes to declare victory outright, meaning they will both go into a run-off. The projection gave Kais Saied 19.5 percent of the vote and Nabil Karoui 15.5 percent.

Saied, a 61-year-old expert on constitutional affairs who ran as an independent, claimed to hold the pole position.

He said on radio on Sunday that exit polling showed he was ahead after the first round of voting, Reuters reported.

"My win brings a big responsibility to change frustration to hope... it is a new step in Tunisian history... it is like a new revolution," the conservative law professor said on Radio Mosaique, citing exit polls ahead of preliminary results expected to be announced on Tuesday.

There was also an upbeat atmosphere at the party headquarters of jailed media mogul Karoui, who is behind bars amid a money-laundering probe, as hundreds of supporters celebrated after he also claimed to have reached the second round.

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A spokesman for Karoui said on Sunday that he had advanced to the run-off.

"Today Tunisians said their word and wanted to change the power system... we have to respect the will of the people... Nabil Karoui will be in the second round... we won," Hatem Mliki, a spokesman for Karoui, told reporters.

Other prominent candidates in the crowded field of 26 in the first round included Abdelfattah Mourou, heading a first-time bid for Islamist-inspired party Ennahdha, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Chahed's popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and the rising cost of living.

The prime minister has also found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui's detention since late August was politically inspired.

"Young people of Tunisia, you still have an hour to vote!" head of the ISIE electoral authority, Nabil Baffoun, had urged before the close of Sunday's vote.

"We must leave our homes and vote, it's a right that we gained from the 2011 revolution that cost lives," Baffoun added, visibly disappointed by the turnout.

However, he later said that the turnout of 45 percent was "an acceptable level".

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The election followed an intense campaign characterised more by personality clashes than political differences.

It had been brought forward by the death in July of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi, whose widow also passed away on Sunday morning.

Essebsi had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July.

Still, Karoui's detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of campaigning, has been the top story of the election.

Studies suggested his arrest may have boosted his popularity.

A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns and handing out food aid to some of the country's poorest people.

Still, his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.

On Friday, an appeal for the Tunisian mogul's release from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said.

The polarisation risks derailing the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, called the vote a democratic "test" because "it may require accepting the victory of a polarising candidate" such as Karoui.

Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living by close to a third since 2016.

The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by 23 October at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls, on 6 October.