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Essebsi, Marzouki to face off in Tunisian presidential runoff

AFP/ Members of the Tunisian ISIE elections body announce the results of the first round of the presidential election.

The preliminary results of Tunisia’s historic presidential election released Tuesday set the incumbent interim President Moncef Marzouki and veteran secular politician Beji Caid Essebsi (pictured) up for a runoff vote next month.


The two veteran Tunisian politicians failed to win an outright majority in Sunday’s historic vote, with Essebsi securing 39.46% and Marzouki 33.43%.

While Essebsi did not secure the 50% necessary to avoid a runoff, his lead in the first round was another victory for his secular Nidaa Tounes party, which won the most seats in October’s parliamentary elections.

Leftist figurehead Hamma Hammami, a veteran dissident who leads the Popular Front coalition of leftist parties, came third in the presidential race with 7.82% of the vote from a line-up of over 20 candidates.

Tunisia’s landmark presidential election – the first since the 2011 uprising – capped a transition period that has, at times, been difficult, but has held together for most, making Tunisia an exception among post-Arab Spring countries.

The official results of the first round came as EU observers hailed Sunday’s vote as “pluralist and transparent”.

Accusations fly between leading candidates

But while Sunday’s vote has been widely hailed as an “historic moment” in a country that sparked the Arab Spring, the lead-up to December’s runoff is likely to be a polarising period in a deeply divided nation.


In an interview with FRANCE 24 on Tuesday, Essebsi of the secular Nidaa Tounes party repeated claims made on the campaign trail that his rival, Marzouki, was a pawn of the Islamist Ennahda party and had the support of hardline Salafists.

>>> Read FRANCE 24’s article Tunisia’s Essebsi says ready to form pluralist govt

When asked if he was playing on the fears of Tunisians by these making such allegations, Essebsi replied with a categorical “No, not at all,” before noting, “It’s obvious that he [Marzouki] has never had more than 10% in the poll. Suddenly in these elections, he stands at 33%... I asked all those working in the field and everyone confirmed that if he arrived at this result, he was mainly supported by Ennahda’s leaders, even if the leaders have always said they will let the people decide for themselves.”

The ruling Islamist Ennahda party had declined to field or support a candidate in the presidential elections in interest of “national unity”, according to the party’s president, Rachid Ghannouchi.

Essebsi, an 88-year-old politician who has held several top political positions, including prime minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker since Tunisia gained independence in 1956, demanded that Ennahda publicly announce which candidate the Islamist party supports in the second round.

On the other hand, Marzouki - who has worked with Ennahda since the 2011 uprising - accuses Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party of attempting to bring back old regime figures.

Islamist surge alarms Tunisians

Criticisms of Nidaa Tounes’s decision to allow former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali supporters to run in the October parliamentary elections increased following the secular party’s victory last month. The party won 86 seats against Ennahda’s 69 in the 217-seat chamber, in what was widely seen as a sharp electoral rebuke to the ruling Islamist party.

Ennahda’s rule in the wake of the 2011 uprising was marred by a surge of radical Islamism and the assassination of two prominent leftist politicians by jihadists.

The post-2011 Islamist surge has alarmed many Tunisians over the past three years. With a population of just 11 million, Tunisia nevertheless has the dubious distinction of being the largest source of foreign jihadist fighters joining the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, according to government and independent monitoring figures.

(Watch FRANCE 24’s exclusive interview with Marzouki at 8.45 pm Paris time)


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