Monday, November 24, 2014

Tunisia Vote for Leader Likely to Go to a Runoff

NOV. 23, 2014
New York Times

TUNIS — Tunisians turned out in steady, orderly lines on Sunday to vote in their first free and democratic presidential election, voicing confidence that they were turning the page on the often-fractious transition after the revolution of 2011.

Exit polls suggested that neither of the two leading candidates — the interim president, Moncef Marzouki, and the former prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi — was likely to win an outright majority and that a runoff between them would be necessary. Official results were not expected for one or two days.

Mr. Essebsi, 87, leads the secular party Nidaa Tounes and has been ahead in polls for months; his party won the largest bloc of seats in parliamentary elections in October. He appeared to be winning between 42 percent and 47 percent of the vote on Sunday, according to the results of two private exit polls that were announced on Tunisian television channels.

Mr. Marzouki, 69, a dissident, physician and human rights activist who has served as interim president since 2011, appeared to be receiving 29 percent to 32 percent of the vote, the exit polls indicated. His party suffered badly in the legislative elections, punished for its role in an Islamist-led coalition government that ruled for two chaotic years. Other candidates among the field of 27 were drawing 10 percent or less.

Each of the leading campaigns claimed that its candidate was ahead but would fall short of a majority. The provisional date for a runoff is Dec. 28.

“We are very happy with the way the election has gone so far,” Mohsen Marzouk, a spokesman for Mr. Essebsi and a senior executive of his party, told reporters soon after the polls closed on Sunday. “We feel we accomplished all the goals set out in this campaign, and we are ready to continue to the next phase.”

Mr. Marzouki, who cast his ballot in the coastal town of Sousse, south of the capital, appeared on national television and called for a clean second round of campaigning. He appealed to those who had supported other candidates to rally behind him. “I ask them to help me put an end to the transition period,” he said, “to establish a democratic pole, national unity and a strong civil society, to end completely the transitional period and to move on to work hard on eradicating the issues of poverty and misery.”

The years since the Tunisian revolution, the first of the Arab Spring uprisings, have been marked with demonstrations, political assassinations and rising terrorism as the country struggled to establish democracy after decades of dictatorship.

Many voters said on Sunday that they were voting for Mr. Essebsi because of his experience. Yet it was not lost on them that nearly four years after ejecting the authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, they were selecting an older leader who had held senior positions in the era of dictatorship.

“The revolution happened — that will stop things sliding back,” said Aroua Melika, who was beaming after casting her ballot in Tunis.

Another voter, Khira Ben Abderrahmen, said “we live in a democracy now and can choose.” She said she was not worried that Mr. Essebsi might revert to authoritarianism. “We used to be afraid, but we learned to say ‘Out!’ ” she said. “If Essebsi does not work, we can get him out.”

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