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Tunisia Gets Its First Ever Democratically Elected President

Beji Caid Essebsi has been confirmed as the winner of Tunisia's first free presidential poll. Essebsi beat current caretaker President Moncef Marzouki, who has been in office since the Arab Spring in 2011.

by Leo Lord-Jones
Dec 22 2014, 6:57pm

Photo via AP/Hassene Dridi

Results released today confirm that anti-Islamist candidate Beji Caid Essebsi has been confirmed as the winner of Tunisia's first free presidential poll. Essebsi defeated current caretaker President Moncef Marzouki, who has been in office since the Arab Spring in 2011, by 55.68 percent of the vote to 44.32 percent, in what observers described as a largely fair election.

Video has today emerged of large crowds of Essebsi's jubilant supporters chanting "Beij, president" outside his campaign office in Tunis city center.

The elections are the first fully open contest in the country since it gained independence from France in 1956.

Yet the tensions that remain suggest the transition of power may not be a smooth one. On Sunday one gunman was killed and three arrested after they opened fire on a polling station in the capital. 

On the same day Marzouki refused to concede the election despite exit polls showing him heading for defeat. Today, there have been reports of unrest in cities in the south of Tunisia with police firing tear gas at opposition supporters who have been burning tires and shouting "No to the old regime."

One of Marzouki's main claims was that a vote for Essebsi would undo all the progress made since the popular revolt in 2011. Essebsi in return claimed that his opponent was the candidate of the Islamists who had brought violence and insecurity back.

Although both candidates promised that they represent the way forward, neither are strangers to Tunisian politics. Essebsi served as speaker of parliament under Ben Ali during his 23 years of one-party reign and also as interior minister under Tunisia's repressive first president, Habib Bourguiba. Marzouki came from the repressed political opposition, having been jailed and exiled for contesting Ben Ali in the 1994 election.

Body of kidnapped and beheaded police officer found in Tunisia. Read more here.

Despite leading the North African nation to relative prosperity, Ben Ali relied heavily on the repression of political freedoms. Any electoral reforms that were implemented, including multi-party politics, had little real effect and saw Ben Ali continually returned to power. It would take an unprecedented popular revolution to finally unseat him. 

In December 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who was regularly harassed by the corrupt Tunisian authorities before pouring petrol over himself and set himself on fire. The uprising that followed would see Ben Ali flee to Saudi Arabia and widespread unrest ripple across neighboring Arab nations.

Four years later, Tunisia now has a new president. Yet, as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisians are all too aware of the fragility of this ongoing transition to democracy.