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Middle East Amp North Africa
Tunisians vote in first free presidential election
From the Financial Times of Sun, 23 Nov 2014 15:11:15 GMT
Tunisians electing new president in landmark polls ...epa04500473 Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi casts his ballot in the Tunisian presidential elections at a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, 23 November 2014. Tunisians are voting in the country's first such polls since the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the 2011 uprising.©EPA

Tunisians voted on Sunday in the country’s first free presidential election, the culmination of a turbulent democratic transition only kept on track by significant compromise between Islamists and their secular opponents.

Unlike Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, where attempted transitions have foundered or degenerated into civil war, Tunisia has managed to avoid violence and maintain an inclusive political process backed by both Islamists and secularists.

On Sunday lines formed outside polling stations in the capital Tunis as voters cast ballots to choose from more than 25 candidates vying to lead the small North African state of 11m whose revolution in 2011 touched off a wave of similar uprisings across the Arab world.

Beji Caid Sebsi, an 87-year old politician who occupied senior positions under previous Tunisian regimes, is tipped as the frontrunner after his party, Nida Tunis, came first in parliamentary elections last month having secured 85 of the 217 seats in the assembly.

His main competitor is Moncef Marzouki, a former opposition figure and human rights activist who served as interim president after the revolution as part of a power-sharing alliance with Nahda, the Islamist party, now the second force in parliament with 69 seats.

Mr Sebsi has attracted the support of Tunisians disappointed by the performance of two post-revolution governments led by Nahda criticised for their failure to arrest the decline of the economy and for what was seen as their initial laxity towards extremist Islamist groups.

Critics of Mr Sebsi, however, claim that his party, which includes figures from the former regime, is only held together by opposition to the Islamists. Many are concerned that his victory at the polls might mean a revival of repressive practices of the one-party state – a fear that he has sought to allay in his campaign appearances.

“The state has been absent in recent years, we are going to bring back its prestige, but with the guarantees of freedom,” he said at a recent rally.

Nahda said it would not field a candidate or back for any of the contenders to avoid “deepening the polarisation in society”.

“Reaching this historic moment today is a proof the democratic experience was a success in Tunisia” said Rachid Ghannouchi, Nahda’s leader as he waited to cast his ballot. “Regardless of the result, the success of this election is in itself a victory.”

Tunisia’s democratic process was on the verge of collapse last year after Islamic radicals shot dead two secular politicians in the space of six months rattling society and spurring large street protests and calls for the abolition of the elected constitution-drafting assembly in which Nahda formed the largest bloc.

Talks mediated by the main trade union and civil society group led to the adoption of compromise constitution earlier this year and the resumption of the democratic process steered by a technocratic prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa.

Talks on the formation of a new government are expected to last for weeks, given the fragmented parliament. Many also expect the presidential election to go into a second round, scheduled for 28 December, due to the large number of candidates.

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