World

Beji Essebsi, former government minister, wins Tunisia election

Tunisia's election commission says 88-year-old former government minister Begi Essebsi has won the presidential runoff with 55.68 per cent of the vote.

Essebi once served speaker of parliament when dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was in power

Beji Caid Essebs, seen here leaving the headquarters of his political party in Tunis on Monday, has been declared the winner of Tunisia's president election. (Hassen Dridi/Associated Press)

An 88-year-old veteran of Tunisia's political establishment won the country's presidency, according to official results issued Monday, capping a four-year-long democratic transition.

Beji Caid Essebsi campaigned on restoring the "prestige of the state" and a return to stability from the years of turmoil that followed this North African country's 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that kicked off the regional pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring.

It is a measure of the country's yearning for a return to stability after four hard years that a revolution of the youth calling for change and social justice ends up electing a symbol of the old regime.

Essebsi, who received 55.68 per cent of the vote, once served as Ben Ali's speaker of parliament and before that was both foreign and interior minister for his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba.

His rival, outgoing interim president Moncef Marzouki, who made his name defending human rights against Ben Ali, received 44.32 per cent of the vote. Exit polls had predicted similar results soon after polls closed Sunday night.

The voting split on geographical lines, with the affluent northern and coastal regions — the traditional home of Tunisia's leadership — voting for Essebsi while the more impoverished and neglected south and interior voted for Marzouki.

Tunisia's powerful Islamist party Ennahda officially remained neutral but its supporters are believed to have backed Marzouki.

Essebsi claimed victory Sunday night and reached out to Marzouki's supporters, calling for everyone to work together to overcome the country's grave economic challenges.

Political deadlock avoided

Essebsi's party Nida Tunis (Tunisia's Call), dominated parliamentary elections in October, giving him control now over both the legislative and executive branches and a great deal of power to direct the country.

Analyst Ahmed Safi said this avoids the deadlock that had been expected if Marzouki would have won, but concentrates a great deal of power with one man.

"The government, which has been given the most power by the constitution, will now be able to work without fear of interference by the president," he said, while adding that it means there will be few checks on Essebsi.

Tunisia's powerful Islamists, who ran the country for two years after the revolution, fear that Essebsi might bring back some of the repression they experienced under the old regime.

In its report on the eve of elections, the International Crisis Group said the past few months have revealed the deep divisions in Tunisian society, between Islamists, old guard politicians as well as the wealthy north and the poorer south. The NGO cautioned that the next president must pursue conciliatory policies.

"Whoever wins the presidential election will have to work alongside the new government and parliament to calm both camps' anxieties, address their legitimate grievances and heal the country's divisions," the statement said.

Voting was largely pronounced free and fair, with a participation rate of 60 per cent, less than the nearly 70 per cent in the previous round and in recent legislative elections.

Riots did erupt Sunday night in the southern industrial city of Gabes, where youths protested the results and clashed with police. After several were arrested, the clashes began anew Monday and two police stations were burned.

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