Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s sole democracy, chooses a new president

Preliminary figures showed a turnout of around 35 percent as Tunisia votes for the second president of its democracy.
Preliminary figures showed a turnout of around 35 percent as Tunisia votes for the second president of its democracy.FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisians voted Sunday in their second-ever presidential elections, widely perceived as a vital test for one of the world’s youngest democracies, the only one to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

People across the North African nation dubbed the cradle of the Arab Spring streamed throughout the day into polling stations that opened up at 8 a.m. Tunisians are choosing from among 26 candidates who represent a wide spectrum of political, social, and religious views.

Sunday’s vote followed nearly two weeks of boisterous campaigning with loud yet peaceful rallies, often held next to each other, unlike anything seen in the Arab world dominated by dictators and monarchs. Some voters said they were proud of Tunisia’ s unique standing in the region. ‘‘I am happy to vote,’’ housewife Dora Marzouki, 27, said after casting her ballot in the upscale enclave of La Marsa. ‘‘We are a democracy, and we can choose the president we like.’’

Despite such pride, many Tunisians are frustrated by their living conditions and politically alienated from their leaders and political parties, according to polls and analysts. By the evening, as polls closed, election observers said preliminary figures showed a turnout of around 35 percent, roughly 30 percent less than the 2014 presidential elections. That prompted election officials to urge more youths, the biggest group of disillusioned Tunisians, to vote.


The largest field to compete in a Tunisian presidential election includes a media tycoon recently jailed on accusations of tax evasion and money laundering — charges his supporters say are politically motivated.

With no clear front-runner, the election could reshape the nation’s political landscape. No candidate was expected to gain the majority requried to win in the first round. A runoff is expected to determine the next president, who will hold office for a five-year term.


While some candidates and local media are expected to release preliminary vote counts late Sunday night, formal results by authorities could be released as late as Tuesday.

Tunisians toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali more than eight years ago, sparking Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

But for most in this country of 11 million, democracy has not brought the economic stability or security that many had hoped. Today, the country is suffocating from high unemployment and cuts in government spending under austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

‘‘I am not going to vote,’’ said Jameela Wartane, an elderly street vendor who was struggling to sell even one pair of socks Saturday in Tunis, the capital. ‘‘The government is not doing anything to help me. These elections are not going to change anything in my life.’’

Prices of basic goods have risen as government pensions have fallen. Last year, the country was rocked by protests against poor economic conditions, a stark sign of the disillusionment gripping the country, particularly in its neglected interior.

‘‘The biggest problem here is how to actually move forward with the economy, how to connect to the economy to the democratic success this county has had in many ways,’’ said Djordje Todorovic, a senior adviser of the International Republican Institute which, with the National Democratic Institute, has sent a joint team of election observers.

Islamist extremism is a threat. The Islamic State has gained a foothold here and staged several major attacks since 2015, many targeting foreigners vital to the country’s tourism revenue. In June, the group claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in Tunis.


A lack of opportunities is seen as a key reason for the radicalization that triggered thousands of Tunisians to travel to fight in Syria and Iraq. Many joined ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Sunday’s vote was pushed forward by two months following the death in late July of 92-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi, who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2014. The oldest sitting leader in the world, he was widely credited with working with his rivals to maintain political stability.

One controversy has emerged that both critics and independent observers say resembles tactics used in other Arab countries to weaken credible opponents: The arrest of Nabil Karoui, the founder of a private television station who was leading in most polls just before he was jailed in August.

Despite his wealth and connections — reported partners include former Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi — Karoui has portrayed himself as a populist who can change the political system as an outsider.

Two highly respected groups of international observers — the Carter Center and the European Union — have raised concerns about the timing of Karoui’s arrest in a 3-year-old case. The Carter Center said last week the detention suggested that ‘‘the electoral process is being influenced by considerations other than strict compliance with the rule of law.’’

Other main candidates included Abdelfattah Mourou, a 71-year-old founder of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which was part of a coalition government under Essebsi. Mourou is the party’s first-ever presidential candidate.


Also running are two longtime politicians: Moncef Marzouki, the nation’s interim president after the revolution, who oversaw the transition to democracy, and former defense minister Abdelkarim Zbidi.

Others include political outsiders such as Abir Moussi, a 45-year-old lawyer and one of two women running. As an unapologetic supporter of Ben Ali, she is trying to gain votes from Tunisians nostalgic for the days of the former dictator, when the economy and security were stronger.

One clear divide in Sunday’s vote is between the secularists and the Islamists. Many Tunisians in the capital said they are voting to keep the Islamist Ennahda, a powerful force in Tunisia’s parliament, out of the presidency.

‘‘I wasn’t going to vote, but I don’t want Ennahda to win,’’ said Taher Binarfa, 40, a taxi driver. ‘‘They don’t represent Islam.’’

Other Tunisians said they are so disillusioned by party politics and the lack of progress by the government that they are voting for candidates they perceive as outsiders.

‘‘All the presidential candidates are the same, but she is different than others,’’ said Rida Sassi, referring to Moussi. Dressed in a straw hat and blue shirt at his job in photo studio, he said ‘‘we are not sure about any of them, whether they are good or not.’’

‘‘Maybe a female president will be better than a man.’’