Tunisia one step closer to democracy in landmark presidential election

Four years after the revolution, voters are grappling with are security concerns and a struggling economy as they head to the country's first presidential election after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisian security officers stand guard outside at a polling station in Tunis, on November 23, 2014, during Tunisia's first presidential election since the 2011 revolution. Fadel Senna/AFP Photo
Tunisian security officers stand guard outside at a polling station in Tunis, on November 23, 2014, during Tunisia's first presidential election since the 2011 revolution. Fadel Senna/AFP Photo

TUNIS, TUNISIA // Tunisia held its first free presidential election on Sunday, taking another step forward in its transition to democracy as voters hoped for greater stability and a better economy.

Many Tunisians weighed security concerns against the freedoms brought by their revolution and by its democratic reforms, which have remained on track in sharp contrast to the upheavals brought by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region, including the military coup in Egypt and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

It has not been easy for Tunisia, however, and the nearly four years since the revolution have been marked by social unrest, terrorist attacks and high inflation that pushed voters into punishing the moderate Islamists in last month’s parliamentary elections..

“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 and a point of terrorist attacks. Tunisia’s revolution began in areas such as Kasserine in the impoverished south.

Voting hours in the rural regions along the border were reduced to five hours due to security fears.

But Ms Judei insisted that “the most important priority is unemployment”. The country’s 15 per cent unemployment rate nearly doubles when it comes to young people.

Of the nearly two dozen candidates for the presidency, the one that most Tunisians feel can deliver on the twin issues of jobs and security is Beji Caid Sebsi, an 87-year-old former minister from the previous administrations who many are hoping will get the country back on track.

“He is a veteran politician with experience that can ensure security and stability,” said Mouldi Cherni, a middle age driver living in Tunis’ Carthage suburb who voted for Mr Caid Sebsi. “The people are tired, life has grown expensive and Tunisians don’t even have enough to make an ojja,” he said, referring to the local omelet favoured by the poor.

The strikes, social unrest and occasional political assassinations have kept away foreign investment as the economy staggered after the revolution as an Islamist-led coalition government struggled with the country’s problems.

In Kasserine, deputy mayor Ridha Abassi said his constituents had once voted for the Islamists of Ennahda but chose Mr Caid Sebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party in last month’s parliamentary elections.

These voters recently tried an Islamist Ennahda Party government “and the result was terrorism and abuse of power”, Mr Abassi said. “Even though they know Nidaa Tounes has a large number of old regime followers in it, they are voting for them to break the power of Ennahda.”

The Ennahda Party stepped down at the start of the year in favour of a government of technocrats.

There are fears, however, that Mr Caid Sebsi has authoritarian tendencies and that his domination of the parliament and the presidency could bring back the old one-party state.

Chakib Romdhani – a 31-year-old filmmaker 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 the Islamist years and interim president Moncef Marzouki.

“I feel a great fear from those of the old regime becoming more and more powerful,” he said as he went to vote. “I have another fear that comes from the experience of the three-year presidency of Marzouki and the country slowly falling apart.”

In Tunisia, while the main power resides with the prime minister, the presidency also has responsibilities for defence and foreign affairs.

Opposition to Mr Caid Sebsi has come mainly from Mr Marzouki, a veteran rights campaigner who is respected for his long fight against tyranny.

“I voted for a man I thought was clean, with integrity and sincerity,” said Azzedine Issaoui, in Tunis’ working class district of Kram, who said he chose Mr Marzouki.

The lines at voting booths on Sunday, which included few young Tunisians, were not as long as at last month’s parliamentary elections, which saw a 70 per cent turnout of registered voters.

If no candidate gains an outright majority, there will be a runoff on December 28 between the top two candidates with the most votes.

Other possible candidates for a runoff include Hamma Hammami of the left-wing Popular Front coalition and millionaire football club owner Slim Riahi.

* Associated Press

Published: November 23, 2014 04:00 AM


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