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Tunisia's first free presidential vote looks headed for a runoff

Unofficial exit polls suggest a runoff vote next month between the incumbent Moncef Marzouki and Béji Caid Essebsi. The outcome could affect the size of the Islamist participation in the cabinet.

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A woman casts her vote during the first round of the Tunisian presidential election, in a polling station outside Tunis, Nov. 23, 2014. Tunisia took another step forward in its peaceful transition to democracy by holding its first free presidential election, with voters hoping for more stability and a better economy.

AP/ Hassene Dridi

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Every election day for two decades, Naima Gharbi voted in school near her home to keep President Zine Ben Ali in power for one simple reason: fear. But yesterday was different, as she joined hundreds of thousands of Tunisians in voting for their first ever democratically-elected head of state.

As Mrs. Gharbi put it, “I’m claiming my freedom.”

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Sunday’s vote represented a break from decades of rigged elections, autocratic leaders, and voters bullied by authorities into showing support. The election is also a major step in Tunisia’s transition to democracy following revolution in 2011.

Unofficial exit polls suggest a runoff vote next month between the incumbent, interim President Moncef Marzouki, and veteran politician Béji Caid Essebsi. The results, expected in about a month, could influence the makeup of the cabinet.

The secularist Nidaa Tounes party won parliamentary elections last month and is expected to form a coalition government. The strength of the party's bargaining position will depend partly on whether the party’s leader, Mr. Essebsi, wins the presidency. Nidaa Tounes may seek to govern with its main rival, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which came second in last month’s vote, or could try to form a coalition with smaller secularist parties instead.

Whoever ends up in charge must work to create jobs and revamp an economy that has tended to benefit a privileged few, according to a recent World Bank report. The country also needs to abolish repressive laws from Mr. Ben Ali’s era, reform institutions, and hold accountable those responsible for the abuses of past regimes. 

Presidential runoff

The rivalry between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda looks set to color the expected potential presidential run-off. Ennahda has neither fielded nor formally endorsed a presidential candidate, but supporters say they back President Marzouki, a secularist whose party formed a coalition transitional government with Ennahda after elections in 2011.

One Marzouki supporter is a middle-aged honey merchant named Abdessatar, who voted at a school in the rundown Tunis suburb of Sidi Hassine. He wears a long beard and calf-length trousers favored by deeply conservative Muslims. He says he disagrees with Ennahda’s embrace of democracy, but voted for the party last month and Marzouki yesterday as the best options currently available.

“Marzouki’s not a man of religion, but he hasn’t tried to stifle religion, either,” says Abdassatar, who did not want to give his last name.

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Meanwhile in downtown Tunis, Mrs. Gharbi’s son, Mohamed Gharbi, a medical laboratory worker who supports Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic party, is among Tunisians who are worried by the fact that Essebsi and some other Nidaa Tounes members formerly served past regimes.

“In my opinion, Béji Caid Essebsi represents the RCD,” Mr. Gharbi says, referring to former president Ben Ali’s now-dissolved party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. “If we elect Essebsi, the RCD will return.”

Nidaa Tounes says it is committed to democracy, and supporters say Essebsi has valuable leadership experience. He held ministerial and administrative roles under Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and led a transitional government in 2011.

“Ennahda ran the country and accomplished nothing, but Béji is up to the task,” says Sawsen Matelli, a telecoms and marketing student who attended a packed Nov. 15 rally for Essebsi at a Tunis stadium. She adds that despite its secular bent, Nidaa Tounes is open to more religious Tunisians as well.

“Look, I’m wearing a headscarf, and I’m with Nidaa Tounes.”

Giving democracy a try

Ms. Matelli illustrates how Tunisia has become a marketplace of ideas. Yesterday’s election featured 22 candidates from an initial 27 (five dropped out). One, magistrate Kalthoum Kannou, made history as Tunisia’s first female presidential candidate.

From 1956 to 2011, Tunisians were ruled by just two men: Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both repeatedly amended Tunisia’s previous constitution to centralize power and stay in office. But a new constitution adopted this year is more robust, says Ghazi Gherairi, a specialist in constitutional law at the University of Carthage, in Tunis.

Article 75 limits presidential terms to two, five-year mandates, and contains a clause stating that this limit may not be amended. Other articles shift powers to set policy, make key appointments, and issue decrees from the president to the prime minister, whom the constitution states must come from the top-scoring party or coalition in parliamentary elections.

Whichever candidate ends up leading Tunisia will have to win over not only party supporters, but also a large number of non-voters. Only about 3.2 million of around 8 million eligible voters went to polls yesterday, according to official figures.

Unemployment and a struggling economy top Tunisians’ concerns, according to a poll released in August by the International Republican Institute, which also found that 86 percent of Tunisians say that parties have done little or nothing to address their needs.

Among non-voters are a young housepainter and his fiancée, Hiba. Rather than vote, they loitered at a cultural center in Sidi Hassine, burned in the revolution and extensively graffitied. They hope to marry, but a bleak job market makes supporting a family tough. Still, the young couple envisions a future in which the democratic process, at least, is sound.

“If the president does a good job and we have confidence again,” says Nader, “maybe next time we’ll vote.”