With formal results yet to be announced, conservative law professor Kais Saied and detained media magnate Nabil Karoui cited exit polls late on Sunday to say they had advanced to a deciding run-off that will be held next month.
If confirmed by official results later on Monday or on Tuesday, it would represent a strong rejection of successive governments that have struggled to improve living standards or end corruption.
Saied described the exit poll results, which showed him with most votes, as “like a new revolution” in a radio interview, a reference to Tunisia’s 2011 uprising that brought in democracy and set off the Arab Spring revolts elsewhere.
Tunisia’s prime minister, two former prime ministers, the defense minister and a former president were among the political heavyweights competing, as was a candidate of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.
“We received the message sent by the Tunisian people,” Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said late on Sunday, conceding defeat.
Banned before the revolution and once seen as the main anti-establishment force in Tunisia, Ennahda has been a big player in successive coalition governments caught between the public desire for more spending and a need to reduce debt.
With a low turnout of 45% – down from 63% in 2014 – the result underscored widespread frustration over the sluggish economy, high unemployment, poor public services and persistent corruption.
Karoui, in a message read by his wife after the exit polls were published, said it was a message to a political elite that he accuses of using the judicial process to try to silence him.
He was detained weeks before the election over allegations of tax evasion and money laundering made three years ago by a transparency watchdog.
“You punished those who tried to steal the votes by putting me in prison without trial, and who prevented me from speaking to people in the campaign,” his message said.