Tunisian presidential election set for run-off between Essebsi and Marzouki

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Tunisian citizens take a selfie with their inked fingers after casting their votes at a polling station during the Tunisian Presidential Election on November 23, 2014, in Tunis, Tunisia. Anadolu / Stringer

Published Monday, November 24, 2014

An official under former hardline ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali appears set for a close run-off in presidential polls with a rival who says he represents the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprising that toppled him.

Preliminary results in the country's first presidential ballot since the uprising are expected later on Monday. But the two frontrunners' parties said initial tallies showed they would face off in December’s second round.

The presidential poll is a step in Tunisia's sometimes rocky transition since its uprising led to the overthrow of 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.

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

He will face off with Moncef Marzouki, the current president who has warned against return of "one-party era" figures like Essebsi.

Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran technocrat, is set to fall short of the 50 percent threshold required to win outright, his campaign team conceded.

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 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.

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.

The run-off 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," Lazhar Akremi, a Nidaa leader. "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.

Meanwhile, Marzouki, a former rights activist, has called the election a race to stop the return of the old regime.

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, who announced a turnout of 64 percent, 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, Al-Akhbar)

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