Marking a milestone in what has been a challenging but largely successful democratic transition, Tunisians on Sunday voted for a head of state for the first time since a popular uprising nearly four years ago.
With more than two dozen candidates contesting the presidency and more than 50% of the vote required for an outright win, the race was considered likely to go to a runoff next month.
The front-runner is Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, whose faction garnered the largest share of seats in last month’s parliamentary vote, but he faces a strong challenge from interim President Moncef Marzouki, who was a well-known human rights campaigner.
Essebsi has ties to the previous regime toppled nearly four years ago in the North African nation’s revolt against strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which inaugurated the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the region.
Some voters view Essebsi as a symbol of the past. Seif Boutabba, a 22-year-old student, said many disillusioned young people were staying away from the polls rather than support him.
“After the revolution of youth, it seems like we need a revolution,” he said.
Still, the octogenarian politician is considered to have wide appeal on the basis of his promises of stability. Tunisia has remained plagued by an underperforming economy and occasional terror attacks.
“We need to choose carefully,” said Takwa Chebbi, a 27-year-old jobless graduate. “We need a president who can solve the problems of economy and security.”
Despite its troubles, Tunisia is still considered a bright spot amid a largely dismal landscape in the post-Arab Spring era. Syria spiraled into savage civil war; Egypt’s political climate is widely considered even more repressive than under the dictator it shook off in 2011, Hosni Mubarak.
Tunisia held parliamentary elections last month, and the vote was hailed not only for the balloting itself being conducted peacefully, but also for the lack of political violence over the result.
The Islamist party Ennahda -- which had won the previous vote but stumbled in its subsequent governance -- accepted the results and pledged to work with the Nidaa Tounes secular bloc that outpolled it. Ennadha did not field a presidential candidate.
Addala is a special correspondent.