Old regime veteran leads Tunisia's presidential vote

Old regime veteran leads Tunisia's presidential vote
Beji Caid Essebsi tops presidential elections poll, but short of the 50 percent threshold required to win outright. A polarising battle is expected between him and Marzouki ahead of the second round set for 28 December.
4 min read
25 November, 2014


 A veteran politician from the previous regime that ran on a platform of restoring the prestige of the state took the lead in Tunisia's first free and fair presidential election taking 39.46 percent of the vote, according to the Tunisian Independent Electoral Commission.

Beji Caid Essebsi will face off against incumbent Moncef Marzouki, who secured 33.43% of the vote. Marzouki is a secular politician who has made common cause with the Islamists against what he says is an attempt at a comeback by former loyalists of the autocratic regime overthrown in 2011.

The two men will go head to head in a second round set for 28 December 2014.
     the people who voted for Marzouki were the Islamists.. that is to say Ennahda members... but also the jihasists Salafists.
- Beji Caid Essebsi

The election represent a milestone for the North African nation, whose ouster of long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali set off a chain of revolts that saw several Arab dictators toppled by citizens demanding democratic reform.

The electoral commission said 60 percent of the 5.3 million registered voters participated. However, youth participatios was lower than in previous elections.

Annemie Neyts-Uytterbroeck, head of the EU observer mission, hailed the Tunisian presidential poll.

"The exercise of freedom of expression and assembly was guaranteed," she said, describing most of the observed irregularities as "minor".

The secular versus religious

Wasting no time in relaunching the battle after Sunday's vote, Essebsi said told French radio station RMC that “the people who voted for Marzouki were the Islamists.. that is to say Ennahda members... but also the jihasists Salafists.”

Marzouki responded by challenging Essebsi to a "a debate on policies... not (a campaign of) insults".

Marzouki called on "all democratic forces" to back him against Essebsi, who served under both Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba.

"I am now calling on all democratic forces... alongside whom I have campaigned for the past 30 years for a real democracy, for a break with the past, for a genuine civil society and for a separation of powers."

Marzouki argues that only he can preserve the gains of the uprising, while his critics say he hijacked the spirit of the revolution by allying himself with the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in 2011.

     I feel a great fear from those of the old regime becoming more and more powerful.
- Cakib Romdhani

he runoff is expected to be polarising, with Marzouki's supporters portraying him as the last line of defence against a return to the autocratic ways of the old regime, and his opponent deriding him as an Islamist pawn.

Stability versus revolutionary gains

The vote appeared to be a choice between fears over security and the freedoms brought by their revolution, with Essebsi representing the stability of the old ways and Marzouki the fervor of the revolution.

Chakib Romdhani — a 31-year-old film-maker who participated in Tunisia's 2011 uprising but had never voted before — described how he was torn between the possibility of a new dictatorship and the unrest of Marzouki's years.

"I feel a great fear from those of the old regime becoming more and more powerful," he said as he went to vote in Tunis.

"I have another fear that comes from the experience of the three-year presidency of Marzouki and the country slowly falling apart," he said.

It hasn't been easy for Tunisia, the nearly four years since the revolution have been marked by worsening economic conditions, terrorist attacks and high inflation that has voters punishing Ennahda party that first came to power.

"The thing I'm worried most about for the future is terrorism. Right now, we don't know who's coming into the country, and this is a problem," said Amira Judei, 21, who voted in the southern city of Kasserine, near the border with Algeria.

Voting hours in the rural regions along the border were reduced because of security fears.

But Judei insisted that "the most important priority is unemployment."

Tunisia's revolution began in areas such as Kasserine in the impoverished south, and the country's 15 percent unemployment rate nearly doubles when it comes to young people.

     The people are tired, life has grown expensive and Tunisians don't even have enough to make an ojja.
- Mouldi Cherni


Out of the nearly two dozen candidates for the presidency, Essebsi, who had the support of the old regime capital, captured people's yearning for a return to stability after the disorder of the last few years.

"He is a veteran politician with experience that can ensure security and stability," said Mouldi Cherni, a driver living in Tunis' Carthage suburb who voted for Essebsi.

The people are tired, life has grown expensive and Tunisians don't even have enough to make an ojja," the local omelet favoured by the poor.

In Tunisia, while the main power resides with the prime minister, the presidency does have some responsibilities for defence and foreign affairs.

Hama Hammami of the left-wing Popular Front coalition came third place with just 7.82 percent of the vote.