Hassene Dridi / AP

Essebsi wins Tunisia presidential election

Tunis declares Beji Caid Essebsi new president, effectively ending four years of transitional government

Beji Caid Essebsi has won the first free presidential election in Tunisia’s history, beating rival and outgoing Interim President Moncef Marzouki with 55.68 percent of the vote, official results show.

Marzouki secured 44.32 percent of the vote, Tunisia's High Electoral Commission said on Monday.

Soon after the polls closed, Essebsi, the 88-year-old former parliament speaker under Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali announced that he had won, and jubilant supporters took to the streets of the capital in celebration, chanting "Beji President!" Essebsi’s new secular party, Nidaa Tounes – Call for Tunisia – already controls parliament after defeating the main Islamist Nahda, or Renaissance Party, in legislative elections in October.

Essebsi's victory will allow him to consolidate power and end the transition to democracy that began in 2011 when Tunisians overthrew Ben Ali, an autocrat who had ruled since 1989, in one of the early dramas of the Arab Spring. Accepting former regime officials such as Essebsi (called the "Remnants" by their critics) back into politics helped restore calm in the first days of the revolution and has keep Tunisia's often unsteady new democracy on track.

"Tunisia has won today, democracy has won, we need to stay united. Despite the claims of our adversary, all indications are positive for us, we look ahead," Essebsi told cheering supporters on Sunday from the balcony of his campaign headquarters in Tunis.

A few hundred protesters in a southern city took to the streets to denounce Essebsi's victory speech, the state news agency Agence Tunis Afrique Presse reported. Police fired tear gas to disperse them.

Voting was pronounced largely free and fair by international observers, including the nation's former colonial ruler, France. The participation rate of 59 percent in the second round was less than the nearly 70 percent in the previous round of presidential voting and in legislative elections in October.

Return of the 'remnants'

Essebsi has been the frontrunner in the presidential election since November, when he took 39 percent of votes in the first round of balloting. Marzouki won 33 percent.

During the last weeks of the campaign, Essebsi dismissed critics who said a victory for him would mark a return of the old regime stalwarts. He argued that he was the technocrat Tunisia needed following three messy years of an Islamist-led coalition government.

Marzouki, who sought refuge in France during the Ben Ali era, said an Essebsi presidency would be a setback for the "Jasmine Revolution" that forced Ben Ali out of office. Ben Ali fled Tunisia and is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, despite numerous calls for his extradition.

As interim president since 2011, Marzouki has been blamed by voters for the mistakes of the coalition government. Critics of the coalition, which was led by the Islamist Nahda party, said it was too lenient with hardline Islamists. Tunisia is one of the Arab world's most secular countries. Islam is the nation's official religion, but the constitution also guarantees against the imposition of religious law. 

Still, secular and religious parties in Tunisia have been able to reach compromise to maintain stability. The murder of two secular leaders – Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid – allegedly at the hands of Islamist extremists last year caused mass protests against the ruling Islamist administration. The assassinations brought into question the independence of the North African nation’s judiciary and law enforcement forces, activists said.

Essebsi's party reached a deal with the Nahda party to step down at the start of this year to make way for a transitional cabinet until elections. But the Islamists remain a powerful force after winning the second largest number of seats in the new parliament.

Essebsi appealed to the more secular, liberal sections of Tunisian society, while analysts predicted that Marzouki would draw on support from more conservative rural areas.

The post of president in Tunisia holds limited powers over national defense and foreign policy.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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