Tunisia’s Second-Round Campaign Begins in Earnest

SHAFAQNA —Tunisians will line up once again next month to vote in an historic presidential election, after official results released on Tuesday showed the first round whittled the field down to two contenders representing sharply divergent political streams.

The results, which came as a surprise in what was largely seen as a one-man race, open a new period of hurried campaigning by the two remaining candidates to woo voters who supported long-shot participants in the nation’s first democratic presidential election.

Outgoing President Moncef Marzouki, left, will face Beji Caid Essebsi, right, in a presidential runoff vote on Dec. 28. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

It will also present an opportunity for top finisher Beji Caid Essebsi and his rival, interim president Moncef Marzouki, to articulate their political platforms more fully—a feature that had been absent leading up to Sunday’s vote, with each candidate essentially campaigning on the promise of keeping the other out of office.

Mr. Marzouki fared far better in the poll than expected, taking 33.43%. Mr. Essebsi, the presumed runaway favorite, garnered 39.46%.

Mr. Marzouki, 69 years old, is a human rights activist who was a longtime dissident during the autocratic regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mr. Ben Ali fled Tunisia in 2011 after a monthlong stretch of popular demonstrations against his rule.

Since then Mr. Marzouki has served as interim president of the North African nation, after being elected to the post by a Constituent Assembly. Observers did not expect Mr. Marzouki to win so many votes on Sunday, with analysts saying Tunisians would associate him with a long and arduous transition in which he aligned himself with an increasingly unpopular Islamist party.

Mr. Essebsi, who will turn 88 years old this week, is a veteran politician who held several ministerial positions under Mr. Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. He was widely tipped as a favorite to win the presidential election after his party dominated parliamentary elections in October. Mr. Essebsi ran on a platform of restoring the state’s prestige along with fixing a flailing economy and fragile security situation while sidelining Islamists.

The two men immediately began trading political barbs once the results became clear, setting up what will be a heated campaign before the runoff, which election authorities said on Tuesday would be held on either Dec. 14 or 21.

Mr. Essebsi charged that Mr. Marzouki’s base included violent Islamist factions. Mr. Marzouki responded by challenging Mr. Essebsi to a televised debate—a first for Tunisia—but Mr. Essebsi declined.

The real fight between the two will be for the votes cast for three other candidates who came in far behind the frontrunners but together accounted for nearly 20% of the electorate, analysts said.

Left-wing politician Hamma Hammami took 7.82%; populist journalist Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi won 5.75%; and Slim Riahi, a wealthy soccer club owner and businessman, secured 5.55%.

Mr. Essebsi, despite his status as a holdover from the former regime, is best positioned to siphon off those votes, said Youssef Cherif, an independent Tunis-based political analyst, largely because Mr. Marzouki is seen as supported by Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party with the second-largest share of parliamentary seats.

“Some people can’t live with Ennahda and see it as a party that should be banned from politics,” Mr. Cherif said.

Ennahda dominated the Constituent Assembly election in 2011 but has since seen its popularity decline amid the wrenching transition. It didn’t propose a presidential candidate nor endorse any of the 22 that ran in Sunday’s vote.

Mr. Cherif said the party is unlikely to publicly endorse either candidate in the runoff but will continue to steer their supporters towards Mr. Marzouki.

“It was clear from the social-media presence of Ennahda that they wanted their base to support Marzouki,” he said. “They used social media in order to pass the message but never made it official.”

Messrs. Essebsi and Marzouki will also likely try to pry endorsements from the nation’s highly influential labor unions, which have so far played the role of mediator between rival political forces but have not lined up behind any candidate.

The unions, along with other civil-society groups, have been credited with being the engine behind the 2010 revolt that sent Mr. Ben Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia in 2011.

“Some of our members are Islamists, some are leftists and others are Marxists,” said Mouldi Jendoubi, a leader in the 750,000-strong Tunisian General Labor Union. “Some drink beer and others drink wine. We only say vote for the party that will progress Tunisia’s democracy.”

Another challenge facing the candidates is invigorating the large youth voting bloc, which elections officials and international monitors said didn’t turn out in large numbers on Sunday, possibly indicating disillusionment with the choices presented.

Mr. Hammami was seen as the sentimental choice of Tunisia’s large youth population, which suffers from 30% unemployment.

Azyz Amami, a popular 31-year-old blogger and human-rights activist, said he voted for Mr. Hammami but would sit out the second round.

“I’m not going to call for a boycott but I won’t vote, because I don’t feel the two candidates represent me,” he said. “It is two camps within the state fighting each other.”

Still, Mr. Amami said the elections illustrate a remarkable transition for Tunisia, which has avoided the political chaos and violence that rocked other Arab nations that unseated longtime autocrats.

“The whole process is witnessing progress,” he said. “We say to the next president: Show us what you’ve got.”

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