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Why Tunisia's election matters

A largely peaceful and honest vote provides a basis for further progress and keeps the high hopes of the Arab Spring alive.

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Supporters of the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) secular party wave flags and shout slogans in Tunis, Tunisia, Dec. 21. Their candidate, Beji Caid Essebsi, was elected president in a vote seen as the final step to full democracy nearly four years after an uprising ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

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A veteran politician with ties back to a repressive regime that was overthrown four years ago has won the presidential election in Tunisia.

So why should those who support democracy around the world be encouraged?

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Tunisia is the birthplace of 2011's Arab Spring, the popular uprising which held so much hope for positive change in the Arab world.

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That hope has seen severe setbacks in places such as Egypt and Libya, and most tragically in Syria, which was plunged into a prolonged, brutal, and ongoing civil war.

But the Arab Spring remains alive in Tunisia, nestled in North Africa along the Mediterranean Coast between Algeria and Libya.

The reasons are several, including its high levels of education among the electorate and its strong ties to France, which has kept its focus toward the European Union. The country is also largely Sunni Muslim, helping it avoid the sectarian challenges that have arisen between Sunnis and Shiites in other Muslim countries such as Iraq.

Indeed, Tunisia's leading Islamist party, Ennahda, remained officially neutral in the just concluded election, in which interim president Moncef Marzouki was defeated soundly by Beji Caid Essebsi, who had once served under former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Mr. Ben Ali was ousted in 2011 in the Arab Spring uprising, also known in Tunisia as the Jasmine Revolution.

In favoring the experienced Mr. Essebsi over Mr. Marzouki voters seemed to be expressing a desire for stability and placing hopes for badly needed economic reforms over political reform.

Tunisia has made great strides in developing its budding democracy. It has passed a new Constitution and now has conducted largely peaceful and well-run legislative and presidential elections.

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Stiff challenges remain, of course. Essebsi represents the wealthier northern region while Marzouki has roots in the poorer southern region, along with credentials as a human rights activist who opposed Mr. Ben Ali.

Essebsi, who represents Nidaa Tounes, the leading secular party, has sounded conciliatory in victory. After polls closed Sunday, he declared, "I thank Marzouki, and now we should work together without excluding anyone."

Many Muslim countries allow sharia law, or laws based on traditional Muslim practices, to take precedence in civil society. But Tunisia's new Constitution declares civil law as primary. The new constitution states: "The people possess sovereignty and are the source of all powers."

Essebsi may himself prove to be an interim figure. Young Tunisians are demanding a better life, and their relatively low turnout in the just-concluded election indicates that they were unimpressed by either candidate.

Yet despite challenges, a largely peaceful and honest election has taken place in Tunisia. It is a welcome harbinger that the country can continue in its role as a beacon of democracy in the region.