Tunisians vote for first freely elected president of post-Ben Ali era


Tunisians went to the polls on Sunday to pick their first directly elected president, the final step in the North African state’s transition to full democracy following a 2011 revolution that ousted long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

More than three years since overthrowing Ben Ali’s one-party rule, Tunisia has adopted a new constitution, and rival secularists and Islamist parties have largely avoided the turmoil that has plagued other Arab states swept by popular revolts.
“Another distinguished day in the history of Tunisia,” said Mouna Jeballi, voting in Soukra district in Tunis. “Now we are the only country in the Arab world who does not know who their president will be until after the vote is finished.”

Sunday’s vote follows the general election in October when the main secular Nidaa Tounes party won the most seats in the parliament, beating the Islamist party Ennahda that had won the first free poll in 2011.

Tunisia’s new government is already facing tough choices, with international lenders demanding difficult reforms in public spending to boost growth and create jobs.

At the same time, it has launched a crackdown on Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda who have attacked the armed forces and killed two secular opposition leaders last year.

Tunisia was the first to topple its long-standing ruler, giving birth to the Arab Spring revolts that followed in Libya, Egypt and Yemen and the war in Syria.

Nearly 30 candidates ran for president but the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old former Ben Ali official, emerged as a frontrunner. His main rival is the incumbent head of state Moncef Marzouki, who warns against the rise of one-party era figures like Essebsi.

Around 200 protesters gathered to heckle Marzouki, shouting at him “Leave, Marzouuki, leave” in the coast town of Sousse where the president had gone to vote. A Reuters photographer at the scene said police detained several people.

Results will be released within 48 hours. But most analysts predict neither Essebsi nor Marzouki will win enough votes to avoid a second round of voting in December.
“Tunisians will have their say and I will accept their choice to consolidate Tunisia’s transition,” Essebsi told reporters after voting.


Deal-making between secular and Islamist rivals has been a feature of the political stability Tunisia has enjoyed compared to its chaotic neighbour Libya.

Tunisia’s Islamists have taken a more flexible approach to allowing officials in the Ben Ali era to return to politics, and avoided the turmoil that has gripped Libya since long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi was deposed in 2011.

But the ascent of former ministers and members of Ben Ali’s RCD party worries some critics who say they fear their return will be a setback for the revolt against one-party rule and rife corruption.

Essebsi and other former officials deny involvement in the abuses under Ben Ali, presenting themselves instead as technocrats with the skills needed for government.

A new Nidaa Tounes-led government will be formed after the presidential ballot but its narrow majority in parliament over the Islamists of Ennahda will mean tough post-election negotiations over the cabinet line-up and new laws.

Ennahda has not put forward a presidential candidate or backed anyone, though Marzouki has sought to attract Islamist support with his message of stopping the return of Ben Ali-era officials.
“The old regime wants to impose itself on these elections, especially after they won the most seats in the parliament,” said bank employee Mohammed Souilmi before the vote.