A voter casts her ballot as she carries her daughter inside a polling station Image Credit: AP

A little-known law professor and a controversial TV personality looked set to compete in a run-off to become Tunisia's next president - a resounding rejection of the status quo in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Interim figures show Kais Saied, a constitutional law expert who's supported by some of Tunisia's disenchanted youth, in the lead after securing 18.8% of ballots counted in Sunday's presidential election. Nabil Karoui, the owner of a TV channel who's competing from prison, has 15.4%.

The election commission gave the figures after tallying 71% of votes.

Official results are not expected until Tuesday.

"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.

"There is anger, hatred and resentment of the people against the political elites, whether ruling or opposition," said Sadok Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst. Many voters believe the "elites betrayed the people and didn't represent them," so they chose the insurgent candidates, he said.

'Robot Man'

Victory for an outsider is a serious upset for Tunisia's political establishment ahead of legislative elections next month.

While the North African nation has emerged from its uprising with a vibrant democracy, two thirds of the population say the government has failed to improve their lives. Since 2011, it has been hobbled by political infighting and sporadic militant attacks that have sapped the economy.

From two-dozen diverse contenders, only four - Karoui, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Ennahda party deputy leader Abdelfattah Mourou and Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi - had been seen as front-runners. Mourou is currently in third place, with 13% of votes counted. If no one secures over 50% of ballots, the leading two will compete in a second round, likely in October.

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Tunisian presidential candidate Kais Saied speaks to the media at his campaign headquarters in the capital Tunis on September 15, 2019, as exit polls ahead of the preliminary results for the polls predicted him to be "first in the first round". Kais Saied, an independent 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui, behind bars due to a money laundering probe, the two anti-establishment candidates in Tunisia's divisive election on September 15, claimed to have won through to a runoff after polling closed in the country's second free presidential poll since the 2011 Arab Spring. / AFP / MOHAMED KHALIL Image Credit: AFP

Saied, who's 61 and ran as an independent, has come to be nicknamed 'Robot Man,' thanks to his rapid, fact-filled speeches during recent debates. He'd had little media attention until Sunday evening, when an exit poll showed him on course for victory and he declared a "new stage in Tunisia's history."

Some of the country's youth say they've found inspiration in this austere figure, who campaigned on a platform of decentralizing responsibilities to local authorities to empower people.

"Today the youth have regained their confidence via Kais Saied," said Rayan Ben Souf, a 20-year-old student shopping in Tunis' central market on Monday. "He is against the system."

The Robot Man's success was a shock to most - some have even dubbed him 'the unknown president.' But that of Karoui, who ran while incarcerated, was more expected.

'Champion of the poor'

A self-proclaimed 'champion of the poor,' the 56-year-old has gained fame for shows on his Nessma TV channel in which he distributed charity to Tunisia's most needy. He was arrested last month on allegations of money-laundering dating back to 2016, which he denies. His Heart of Tunisia party calls it an attempt to quell an electoral upstart.

One opinion poll in June suggested Karoui might take votes from the established parties, including Nidaa Tounes, to which former President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July, belonged. Parliament failed in a subsequent bid to pass legislation that would have disqualified candidates with links to charities - a step that would likely have affected him.

A conviction would rule him out of the race, but no trial has yet been set.

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 2, 2019, Nabil Karoui, Tunisian media magnate and would-be presidential candidate is pictured after submitting his candidacy to Tunisia's electoral commission in the capital Tunis. Arrested just weeks before Tunisia's September 15 presidential polls, candidate Nabil Karoui has hit the campaign trail by proxy, deploying his wife and party activists to shake the hands he cannot. / AFP / Hasna Image Credit: AFP

"Tunisians want to break with the old system," said analyst Hammami, comparing some of the circumstances to those that led to the U.S. election of Donald Trump. "Populists have become an alternative to the traditional political elites."

Turnout also signaled political disillusionment in the nation that's sandwiched between Libya and Algeria, and slightly bigger than the U.S. state of Georgia. About 45% of Tunisia's roughly 7 million registered voters cast ballots, according to the election commission, down from around 60% in 2014's presidential contest.