More than three years since overturning Ben Ali’s one-party rule, Tunisia has become a model of transition for the region by adopting a new constitution, the politics of compromise and avoiding the turmoil facing its neighbors.
“Another distinguished day in the history of Tunisia,” said Mouna Jeballi, voting in Soukra district in Tunis. “Now we are the only country in the Arab world, who does not know who their president will be until after the vote is finished.”
Sunday’s vote follows the general election in October when the main secular Nidaa Tounes party won the most seats in the parliament, beating the Islamist party Ennahda that had won the first free poll in 2011.
Nearly four years after the uprising Tunisia needs stability, with the new government facing the need to make the tough reforms in public spending demanded by international lenders to boost growth and create jobs, while also managing a crackdown on Islamist militants.
Nearly 30 presidential candidates are running but the Nidaa Tounes leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old former Ben Ali official, has emerged as a front runner alongside the current president, Moncef Marzouki, who warns against the rise of one-party era figures like Essebsi.
Most analysts predict neither Essebsi nor Marzouki will win enough votes to avoid a second round of voting in December.
“Tunisians will have their say and I will accept their choice to consolidate Tunisia’s transition,” Essebsi told reporters after voting.
Deal-making between secular and Islamist rivals has been a feature of Tunisia’s political success, including Islamists taking a more flexible approach to allowing officials in the Ben Ali era to return to politics.
But the ascent of former ministers and members of Ben Ali’s RCD party is worrying some critics who say they fear their return will be a setback for the revolt against one-party rule and rife corruption.
Essebsi and other former officials say they were not involved in the abuses of the former regime, presenting themselves instead as technocrats having the skills which the country now needs in government.
A new Nidaa Tounes-led government will be formed after the presidential ballot. But the narrow lead it holds over the Islamists of Ennahda in parliament will mean tough post-election negotiations over the new administration.
Ennahda has not put forward a presidential candidate or backed anyone, leaving its supporters’ choice open. However, Marzouki will seek to pull in Islamist support with his message of stopping the return of Ben Ali-era officials.
“The old regime wants to impose itself on these elections, especially after they won the most seats in the parliament,” said bank employee Mohammed Souilmi before the vote.