Essebsi ahead in Tunisia’s presidential race

Beji Caid Essebsi (L), leader of Tunisia's secular Nidaa Tounes party and a presidential candidate, gestures after casting his vote at a polling station in Tunis Nov. 23, 2014.

Beji Caid Essebsi (L), leader of Tunisia’s secular Nidaa Tounes party and a presidential candidate, gestures after casting his vote at a polling station in Tunis Nov. 23, 2014.

Tunisia’s former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi came top in the president race on Sunday but he remained short of winning the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff, his campaign said.

Essebsi, “according to preliminary estimates, is ahead and has a large lead,” his campaign Mohsen Marzouk told reporters.

He said the Nidaa Tounes chief fell “not far short” of the 51 percent popular vote needed to win outright, but that a second round in late December was likely.

Al Arabiya correspondent said Essebsi had won 47.8 percent, following by incumbent president Moncef Marzouki with 26.9 percent of the vote.

It was Tunisia’s first presidential election since the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, in a ballot set to round off an often fraught transition to democracy.

Essebsi’s anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party won parliamentary elections last month.

Others vying for the presidency include outgoing President Marzouki, several ministers who served under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, left-winger Hamma Hammami, business magnate Slim Riahi and a lone woman, magistrate Kalthoum Kannou.

Some 5.3 million people are eligible to vote, with tens of thousands of police and troops deployed to guarantee security amid fears Islamist militants might seek to disrupt polling day.

Polling hours were restricted to just five in some 50 localities close to the Algerian border, where armed groups are active. Everywhere else, polls were due to close at 1700 GMT.

Until the revolution, Tunisia knew only two presidents — Habib Bourguiba, the “father of independence” from France in 1956, and Ben Ali, who deposed him in a 1987 coup.

To prevent another dictatorship, presidential powers have been restricted under a new constitution, with executive prerogatives transferred to a premier drawn from parliament’s top party.

Essebsi has run on a campaign of “state prestige,” a slogan with wide appeal to Tunisians anxious for an end to instability.

Supporters argue only he can stand up to the Islamists who first held power in the post-Ben Ali era, but critics charge he is out to restore the old regime, having served under both former presidents.

Marzouki has been hammering home the argument that he is the only leader capable of preserving the gains of the uprising, and has said Sunday’s vote is the “last stand” for the old guard.

Moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which came second in the legislative election, has not put up a candidate and has invited its members “to elect a president who will guarantee democracy”.

Speculation has been rife on the make-up of a new government and the possibility of a coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda despite their fundamental differences.

Tunisia has won international plaudits, despite security and economic setbacks, for having largely steered clear of the violence, repression and lawlessness of fellow Arab Spring countries such as neighboring Libya.

Whoever wins, tackling the faltering economy will be a top priority, with unemployment, a leading cause of the revolution, running at 15 percent.

 
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