Polls close in Tunisia’s first free election

Turnout estimated at above 64 percent in vote marking first democratic transfer of power in country’s modern history.

Millions of Tunisians have cast their ballots to directly elect their president for the first time since the revolution four years ago that swept away longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Sunday’s election was a contest among stalwarts of the deposed regime, members of the once-outlawed parties, as well as a new breed of politicians that has emerged since the 2011 revolution.

Tunisia’s high election authority said 64.6 percent of the registered voters turned out to cast their ballot.

Al Jazeera’s Omar Al Saleh reporting from the capital, Tunis, said that the two main candidates claim they won the elections.

“Both candidates however, do agree that there is a need for a second round and that is expected to take place in December,” Saleh said.

At a polling centre at 18 Rue de L’Inde in Lafayette district in Tunis’ business district, the voting process was progressing smoothly shortly after polls opened at 8am local time (07:00 GMT).

“As you can see it is a very smooth and calm operation. So far things have been going very well,” Noureddine Jouini, the electoral officer in charge of the polling station, told Al Jazeera.

“Last time in the legislative elections there were a couple of people who couldn’t find their names on the lists even though they had registered. This time the lists have been updated and we have not received any complaints regarding that issue. The youth voter turnout is very low like in the legislative.”

Mohamed Khlil, 78, a retired state official, was among the first to vote at 18 Rue de L’Inde.

“I came to vote because it’s my country’s fate that we are deciding. I am very happy to be able to vote and make my voice heard,” Khlil told Al Jazeera after casting his vote.

First free poll

At least 80,000 security personnel were deployed around the country and up to 22,000 observers, 600 of them foreigners, monitored Sunday’s vote.

The election has been billed as Tunisia’s first free poll since independence from France in 1956.

The vote also marks the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s modern history. The fact that there are 27 competitors may prevent a decisive victory.

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Many analysts say an outright win is unlikely to be achieved by any of the leading contenders.

In the event that no candidate secures an absolute majority, a second round of voting – pitting the two top candidates against each other – will take place on December 28.

Mohamed Salah Ben Aissa, a professor of public law at the University of Legal, Political and Social Sciences of Tunis, told Al Jazeera that all indications point to a run-off.

“It looks like Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki will respectively get the first and second spot in the first round of the presidential elections,” he said.

“There is also the possibility for Popular Front candidate Hamma Hammemi to move to the second round. It is a very slim possibility but he may occupy the second spot and that would be one of the surprises of this first round.”

‘Wide electoral support’

Essebsi, 87, is seen as the front-runner after his secularist Nidaa Tounes (Tunisian Call) party won last month’s parliamentary polls, with the incumbent, Marzouki, running far behind.

Essebsi served as minister of the interior, defence and foreign affairs under the country’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba.

He was then parliamentary speaker under Ben Ali, which has led to critics accusing him of seeking to restore the old regime.

“Essebsi enjoys wide electoral support, backed by leftists and unionists. He also enjoys the support of the country’s long-established elites and those wanting a return to a more orderly era,” Ben Aissa said.

Marzouki remains popular among supporters of Islamist party Ennahda, which did not field a candidate of its own.

Other contenders to watch are Constituent Assembly head, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, and wealthy businessman and Club Africain football team chief, Slim Riahi, who leads the Free Patriotic Union party.

Results are expected to be released on Wednesday.

Hend Hassassi has contributed reporting to this story

Source: Al Jazeera