Nov 23, 2014 7:51 AM
Tunisians hold landmark presidential election
The Associated Press
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) Tunisia took another step forward in its transition to democracy on Sunday by holding its first free presidential election, with voters hoping for more stability and a better economy.
Many Tunisians weighed security 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 brutal military coup in Egypt and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
It hasn't 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 has voters punishing the moderate Islamists 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 and a point of terrorist attacks. Voting hours in the rural regions along the border were reduced to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. over 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.
Out of the nearly two dozen candidates for the presidency, the person most feel can deliver on the twin issues of jobs and security is Beji Caid Essebsi, 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 Essebsi. "The people are tired, life has grown expensive and Tunisians don't even have enough to make an ojja," the local omelet favored by the poor.
The strikes, social unrest and occasional political assassinations have kept away foreign investment and the economy foundered 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 Islamist but chose Essebsi's Nida Tunis 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," Abassi said. "Even though they know Nida Tunis 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 favor of a government of technocrats, but it still completed one of the region's most progressive constitutions.
There are fears, however, that Essebsi 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 in Tunis. "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 does have some responsibilities for defense and foreign affairs.
Opposition to Essebsi has coalesced around 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 Marzouki.
The lines at voting booths Sunday, which included few young Tunisians, were not as long as at last month's parliamentary elections, which saw a 70 percent turnout of registered voters.
If no candidate gains an outright majority, there will be a runoff between the two top vote getters on Dec. 28.
Other possible candidates for a runoff include Hamma Hammami of the left-wing Popular Front coalition and millionaire football club owner Slim Riahi.
Kimball reported from Kasserine, Tunisia.