Tunis - Veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi claimed victory in Sunday’s Tunisian presidential runoff, seen as the final step to full democracy nearly fars after an uprising ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Official results were still awaited and the campaign team of his rival, Moncef Marzouki, did not concede defeat. But soon after polls closed, Essebsi announced he had won and jubilant supporters took to the streets of the capital in celebration.
A victory for Essebsi, 88, would see the return of a former Ben Ali official to the presidency just four years after the autocrat fled. Essebsi’s secular party already leads the parliament after earlier this year defeating the Islamist party that had won Tunisia’s first legislative election in 2011.
With a new progressive constitution and a string of elections successfully completed, Tunisia is hailed as an example of democratic change in a region that is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.
“I dedicate my victory to the martyrs of Tunisia. I thank Marzouki, and now we should work together without excluding anyone,” Essebsi, a one-time parliament speaker under Ben Ali, told local television.
His campaign manager said “initial indications” showed Essebsi had won, without giving any details, as hundreds of supporters chanted “Beji President!” and waved Tunisia’s red and white national flag.
However, the rival campaign manager for Marzouki, Adnen Monsar, dismissed the victory claims, saying it was a very close call. “Nothing is confirmed so far,” he told reporters.
Although Tunisia has largely avoided the bitter post-revolt divisions that trouble Egypt and neighbouring Libya, tensions nevertheless flared between Islamists and secularists after the 2011 rebellion in one of the Arab world’s most secular nations.
Islamist militants who emerged in the wake of the uprising remain a risk. One gunman was killed overnight and three arrested after they opened fire on a polling station in the central Kairouan governorate.
Return of the ‘remnants’
But accepting former regime officials—known as the “Remnants” by their critics—back into politics was one of the steps that initially helped restore calm and keep Tunisia’s often unsteady transition to democracy on track.
Essebsi took 39 percent of votes in the first round ballot in November with Marzouki winning 33 percent.
As front runner, Essebsi dismissed critics who said victory for him would mark a return of the old regime stalwarts. He argued that he was the technocrat Tunisia needed following three messy years of an Islamist-led coalition government.
Marzouki, 69, is a former activist who once sought refuge in France during the Ben Ali era. He painted an Essebsi presidency as a setback for the “Jasmine Revolution” that forced the former leader to flee into exile.
Many Tunisians tie Marzouki’s own presidency to the Islamist party’s government and the mistakes opponents said it made in being too lenient with hardline Islamists in one of the Arab world’s most secular countries.
Still, compromise has been important in Tunisian politics and Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) party reached a deal with the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party to overcome a crisis triggered by the murder of two secular leaders last year.
Ennahda stepped down at the start of this year to make way for a technocrat transitional cabinet until elections. But the Islamists remain a powerful force after winning the second largest number of seats in the new parliament.
Essebsi appeals to the more secular, liberal sections of Tunisian society, while analysts predicted that Marzouki would draw on support from more conservative rural areas, and from some members of Ennahda, which did not field a candidate.
The presidency post holds only limited powers over national defense and foreign policy. The parliament, led by Nidaa Tounes which won the most seats, will be key to selecting a prime minister to lead the government.
Photo © Sarah Leduc, FRANCE 24