1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Landmark elections in Tunisia

November 23, 2014

Tunisians are voting for their first directly-elected president in a landmark poll, widely seen as a key step in the transition to democracy. Dictator Ben Ali was ousted in a popular uprising nearly four years ago.

A woman puts her vote in the ballot box
Image: Getty Images/Afp/Fadel Senna

Voting got off to a peaceful start on Sunday, as Tunisians participated in their first free presidential elections since the 2011 revolution that ended the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East.

"It's a historic day, the first presidential election in Tunisia held under advanced democratic norms," Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said. "God willing, it will be a great festival of democracy."

About 5.2 million people are eligible to vote at the 11,000 polling stations across the country. Tens of thousands of police and troops were deployed amid security fears the poll could be disrupted by Islamist militants. Voting hours were reduced from 10 to five in some 50 localities close to the Algerian border where armed groups are active.

Voters are being asked to choose from a list of 27 presidential candidates. Former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, of the secularist Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia's Call) party, is considered the favorite. His party came first in general elections last month, winning 85 seats in the new 217-member parliament.

Other names in the race include outgoing President Moncef Marzouki, leftist Hamma Hammami, and sole female candidate, magistrate Kalthoum Kannou.

Model for the region

The popular uprising that ended Ben Ali's dictatorship was sparked by Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 as a form of radical protest against the authorities.

Until the revolution, Tunisia had only had two presidents - Habib Bourguiba, who led the Tunisian state after independence from France in 1956, and Ben Ali, who deposed him in a 1987 coup.

Ben Ali's ouster inspired similar uprisings, known as the Arab Spring, in countries such as Egypt, Syria and neighboring Libya. But unlike those countries, Tunisia has remained relatively stable. It adopted a new constitution and, despite some setbacks, largely steered clear of violence.

Challenges ahead

Currently a caretaker government of independents led by Prime Minister Jomaa is overseeing the completion of Tunisia's transition to democracy, and its main priorities in the foreseeable future will be to tackle the struggling economy and high unemployment rate.

In Tunisia, the main power resides with the prime minister, while the presidency is largely a symbolic post.

In the leadup to Sunday's vote, Essebsi - who served under both former presidents - ran on a campaign of "state prestige," saying his skills were indispensible in the new government. His critics, however, claim he has authoritarian tendencies and could bring back the one-party state. Outgoing President Marzouki insists he is the only candidate capable of consolidating the gains of the uprising.

Islamist party Ennahda, which came second in the recent parliamentary election, hasn't put a candidate forward, instead inviting its members to choose a president "who will guarantee democracy."

Most analysts predict neither Essebsi nor Marzouki will win enough votes to secure an absolute majority. In this case, a run off vote would be held in December.

Polling booths are scheduled to close at 6 p.m. (1700 UTC) in most localities. Preliminary results are expected on Tuesday.

nm/kms (Reuters, AP, AFP)