Frontrunners in Tunisia presidential vote head for a December run-off

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Members of the Tunisian ISIE elections body hold a press conference to announce the results of the first round of the presidential election on November 25, 2014. The head of Tunisia's anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party, Beji Caid Essebsi, leads the country's presidential election with 39.46 percent of votes, six percentage points ahead of incumbent Moncef Marzouki. AFP / Fadel Senna

Published Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The two frontrunners in Tunisia's presidential election are heading for a run-off vote in December, after failing to get an overall majority in first round results announced on Tuesday, their parties said.

Beji Caid Essebsi, from the secularist Nidaa Tounes party, got 39.46 percent of the vote with 1.3 million votes in the first round held on Sunday, ahead of Incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, who got 33.4 percent with 1.1 million votes, according to preliminary results.

According to Tunisia election committee, voter turnout inside the country was 64.56.

Tunisia's first presidential election since a 2011 revolution was credible and transparent, the head of the EU observer mission said on Tuesday.

"On Sunday, the Tunisian people renewed their commitment to democracy ... in pluralist and transparent elections," Annemie Neyts-Uytterbroeck said.

"The exercise of freedom of expression and assembly was guaranteed," she said, describing most of the observed irregularities as "minor."

The presidential poll is a step in Tunisia's sometimes rocky transition since its uprising led to the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

Tunisia's progress and political compromise between rival Islamist and secular rivals contrasts with warring factions in Libya and the army overthrow of an elected Islamist president in Egypt, countries who also experienced uprisings that same year.

Essebsi, who was parliament chief under Ben Ali, has cast himself as a veteran technocrat.

He will face off with Marzouki in a second round of voting because there was no outright winner.

Wasting no time in relaunching the battle after Sunday's vote, Essebsi said his rival was the candidate of "jihadist Salafis,” to which Marzouki countered by calling for "a debate on policies... not (a campaign of) insults."

Essebsi, 87, 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.

Essebsi says he will be looking to consolidate his secular Nidaa Tounes party's win in last month's parliamentary elections when they beat the Islamist al-Nahda party into second place.

Al-Nahda won the first election after the 2011 revolt.

The December runoff will likely be tough, with both candidates hunting for backing from the liberal, left-wing, and Islamist parties that emerged after the end of Ben Ali's one-party rule.

"This confirms our win in the parliamentary vote, and that gives us more confidence about the second round," a Nidaa leader, Lazhar Akremi, said. "It's too early to say who will side with us, but we are reaching out to all Tunisians."

Essebsi and other former Ben Ali officials claim they are not tainted by the abuses of the past administration.

Marzouki, the current president and a former rights activist, however, has called the election a race to stop the return of the old regime and has warned against return of "one-party era" figures like Essebsi.

On Sunday after the poll he challenged Essebsi to a televised debate as part of his campaign to "beat the old regime machine."

Votes of Nahda supporters will play a key role in the second round as the Islamist party positions itself for a part in the new government formation or as the main opposition. It has so far backed no presidential candidate.

Election officials have until Wednesday to publish the official results.

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

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

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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