Old-guard insider wins Tunisian presidency, preliminary count shows

and Contact Reporter
Preliminary count: Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Tunisia's parliament under dictatorship, wins presidency

In a triumph of the old guard, a former senior member of Tunisia’s pre-revolution government has won the presidency, according to official preliminary results released Monday.

Though the results did not represent the full final count, Tunisia’s election commission declared 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi the winner of Sunday’s runoff vote. The news set off car-honking celebrations in the capital, Tunis, among his supporters.

The preliminary figures, echoing those of exit polls released soon after balloting ended Sunday, pointed to a more than 10-percentage-point disparity between Essebsi and his rival, Moncef Marzouki, 69, a former human rights activist and the incumbent president. The election commission said Essebsi won nearly 55.7% to Marzouki’s 44.3%. 

Essebsi was aligned with the toppled government of Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who was pushed from office in the first of the regional uprisings that became collectively known as the Arab Spring. But whatever distaste voters may have felt over his serving as speaker of parliament under the former dictator, many voters expressed confidence in his ability to bring stability.

Tunisia is widely viewed as the prime success story among the Arab Spring countries, having agreed on a new constitution, staged peaceful parliamentary elections and seen a nonviolent handover of power by Islamists who had moved to the political fore in the wake of the uprising.

Sunday’s vote, held after first-round balloting with fragmented support among a large field of candidates, was Tunisia’s first free election since its independence from France in 1956.

But despite its steps toward an inclusive democracy, the North African country has been beset by economic woes, security fears and an simmering Islamic insurgency. Tunisia has seen particularly large numbers of recruits to the ranks of the Sunni militant group the Islamic State, which during the summer burst out of Syria and claimed large swaths of Iraq. 

The preliminary results point to an already established regional split within Tunisia. Essebsi polled strongly in Tunis, the capital, and the Mediterranean coastal region, while Marzouki performed better in Tunisia’s disadvantaged south.

Special correspondent Addala reported from Tunis and staff writer King from Cairo.

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