SHAFAQNA – Tunisians voted in the runoff of the country’s first free presidential election on Sunday, with authorities urging a big turnout to consolidate democracy after a chaotic four-year transition. Just hours before polling began at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), troops guarding ballot papers in the central region of Kairouan came under attack and shot dead one assailant and captured three, the defence ministry said.
Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa condemned what he called a “desperate attempt” to disrupt the embrace of democracy in the nation that triggered the Arab Spring.
“The best response is to turn out calmly and in numbers,” Jomaa told Mosaique FM radio.
The second round vote pits 88-year-old favourite Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party, against incumbent Moncef Marzouki, who held the post through an alliance with the moderate Islamist movement Ennahda.
“This is a big day. I am proud to take part in this historic moment,” said Bechir Ghiloufi, a 54-year-old bank director in Tunis. “It is important to progress towards democracy.”
It is the first time Tunisians have freely elected their president since independence from France in 1956.
“It is time to move on and set up long-lasting institutions,” said Raja Gafsi, a 58-year-old worker, who like most voters is anxious to see political and economic stability and security return to Tunisia.
Ahead of the vote, which sets Tunisia apart from the turmoil of other Arab Spring countries, jihadists had issued a videotaped threat against the North African state’s political establishment.
Authorities deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and police to provide polling day security.
By 1330 GMT, turnout reached 36.8 percent, election organisers said. Polls were due to close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) and the result could be announced as early as Monday evening.
– Mudslinging during the campaign –
A first round on November 23 saw Essebsi win 39 percent of the vote, six percentage points ahead of Marzouki, a 69-year-old former rights activist installed by parliament two months after December 2011 polls.
Nidaa Tounes won parliamentary polls in October, making Essebsi favourite to be the next president, but with powers curbed under constitutional amendments to guard against a return to dictatorship.
The campaign was marked by mudslinging, with Essebsi refusing to take part in a debate with Marzouki, claiming his opponent is an “extremist”.
Essebsi insists that Marzouki represents the Islamists, charging that they had “ruined” the country since the 2011 revolution which toppled veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and gave birth to the Arab Spring.
Marzouki in turn accused Essebsi, who served as a senior official in previous Tunisian regimes, of wanting to restore the old guard deposed in the revolution.
After voting on Sunday, Marzouki vowed to respect the verdict of the ballot box.
“The rules of the democratic game require that each of us accepts the outcome of the vote in a sporting spirit,” he said.
– ‘The dictatorship is over’ –
Voters said they regretted the lack of restraint shown by candidates during campaigning but said they believed Tunisia was on the path to democracy.
“Our candidates and their policies perhaps aren’t the best but we’re moving forward — the dictatorship is over,” said shopkeeper Mohammed Taieb.
In an Internet video posted Wednesday, jihadists claimed the 2013 murder of two secular politicians that plunged Tunisia into crisis, and warned of more killings of politicians and security forces.
The murders had threatened to derail Tunisia’s post-Arab Spring transition until a compromise government was formed in January this year.
But defence ministry spokesman Belhassan Oueslati said he did not believe the jihadists were behind Sunday’s pre-dawn attack.
“The vigilance of the soldiers and the swiftness of their response thwarted this operation and led to the death of a man armed with a hunting rifle and the arrest of three suspects,” Oueslati told AFP.
“Generally, the terrorists don’t use hunting rifles.”
In addition to the jihadist threat, Tunisia faces major challenges.
Its economy is struggling to recover from the upheaval of the revolution, and there are also fears of widespread joblessness causing social unrest.
“The end of this transition is very important for the future of Tunisia.” said factory owner Sami Ayadi, adding that over the past four years he was often unable to pay his workers.
“I think that in the next five years the country will be run by a stable government we have chosen and by a president we have also chosen,” added Youssef Kort, a doctor.