TUNIS, Tunisia – Veteran anti-Islamist politician Beji Caid Essebsi was declared the winner of Tunisia’s first free presidential election on Monday, December 22, capping off the transition to democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
But in a sign of the challenges ahead for Tunisia, police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of youths who burned tires in protest at the result.
Essebsi, an 88-year-old former official in previous Tunisian regimes, took 55.68% of the vote to defeat incumbent Moncef Marzouki in Sunday’s run-off, the electoral commission said.
Essebsi had claimed victory shortly after polls closed but Marzouki, a long-exiled 69-year-old rights activist, refused to concede defeat.
A first round of voting on November 23 had seen Essebsi in the lead with 39 percent of the vote, six points ahead of Marzouki.
Participation in the second round was 60.1 percent, electoral commission chief Chafik Sarsar said, after authorities had urged a high turnout.
There was no immediate reaction from either camp to the official results.
The vote was seen as a landmark for democracy in Tunisia, which sparked the Arab Spring mass revolutions with the 2011 ouster of longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The campaign was bitter and divisive, with Marzouki insisting a win for Essebsi would mark the return of Tunisia’s old guard of ruling elites.
Essebsi in turn accused his rival of representing the moderately Islamist party Ennahda that ruled Tunisia after the revolution and which installed him as president.
Continued divisions were clear as some 300-400 protesters clashed with police in the town of El Hamma in Tunisia’s south, where Marzouki had widespread support.
The protesters “set fire to tyres and tried to attack a police station by throwing stones. Security forces responded with tear gas,” interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said.
Several police were wounded in the clashes, which began late on Sunday, Aroui said without providing further details.
After declaring victory on Sunday, Essebsi had urged his rival to “work together for the future of Tunisia”.
– ‘Milestone’ vote –
The vote was the first time Tunisians have freely elected their president since independence from France in 1956.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday congratulated the country on its “milestone” vote.
“The successful staging of this presidential election confirms Tunisia’s historic role,” he said in a statement.
The weekly Tunis Hebdo said the vote would “enhance Tunisia’s reputation as the only Arab Spring country that has managed to survive”.
The revolution that began in Tunisia spread to many parts of the Arab world, with mass protests in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
In every country except Tunisia the revolution was followed by violent turmoil or, as in Syria’s case, a devastating civil war.
Sunday’s vote was largely peaceful, though troops guarding ballot papers in the central region of Kairouan came under attack, shooting dead one assailant and capturing three, the defence ministry said.
The authorities had deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and police to provide security for polling day.
Ahead of the vote, jihadists had issued a videotaped threat against Tunisia’s political establishment.
Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party won parliamentary polls in October and he promised to begin the process of forming a government after the presidential vote.
Under a new post-revolution constitution, the powers of Tunisia’s president have been curbed to guard against a return to dictatorship.
Ennahda came second in the vote and has not ruled out joining in a governing coalition.
The next government will face major challenges.
The small North African nation’s economy is struggling to recover from the upheaval of the revolution and there are fears that widespread joblessness will cause social unrest.
A nascent jihadist threat has also emerged, with militant groups long suppressed under Ben Ali carrying out several attacks including the killings of two anti-Islamist politicians.
Monday’s edition of the French-language La Presse newspaper said Tunisia was still experiencing “investment failures, an alarming unemployment rate, purchasing power at its lowest and a totally disordered social situation.” – Rappler.com
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