An estimated 63 percent of Tunisia's registered voters turned out on Sunday to vote in the first-ever open democratic presidential election. With more than 25 candidates were competing in the election, Tunisia's first free poll since the country gained independence from France in 1956, however, not a single candidate secured a majority of the vote, sending the elections into a run-off set for December.
Prior to the Arab spring uprisings in 2011, the country had known only two presidents: Habib Bourguiba, the "founding father" of modern Tunisia, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ascended to power in 1987 after a peaceful coup d'état and was ousted after the 2011 movement.
Official sources put 87-year-old Béji Caïd Essebsi in the lead, with 39.46 percent of the vote, narrowly beating interim president and long-time human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, who collected 33.43 percent. The lack of an outright winner means that a second round of voting has been slated for the end of December.
Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, the head of the European Union's election observation mission in Sunday's election, commended the vote, which she described as "pluralist and transparent."
Speaking at a press conference in the country's capital and largest city Tunis, Neyts-Uytterbroeck declared that, "the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly was guaranteed," and that "the majority of the irregularities were minor."
Essebsi's party Nidaa Tounès, or the Call of Tunisia in English, already holds a majority of seats in the Tunisian parliament, following the October parliamentary election, which was widely regarded as the first true test of Tunisian democracy. Nidaa Tounès is a secularist party that was formed in 2012 to counter the dominance of the Islamist Ennahda movement, a once-banned party that gained momentum after the Arab Spring.
Known to many as BCE, Essebsi is a veteran of Tunisian politics. He was an advisor to Bourguiba when he was only 30, and went on to serve as the minister of both foreign affairs and defense, among other posts. He became the parliamentary speaker under Ben Ali, but distanced himself from the regime in the early 1990s, returning only in 2011, when he was appointed interim prime minister, and tasked with organizing October's constituent assembly election.
Essebsi's critics are concerned that the candidate — who turns 88 at the end of the month — is too old to take on the presidency. They have given the example of neighboring Algeria, whose 77-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has not been seen in public since his reelection in April.
According to a report from the news site France TV Info, the candidate poked fun at his detractors, announcing, "They say I am sick! Would you like me to take my clothes off? Would you like to examine me?"
Essebsi has presented himself as a counterweight against Ennahda, Tunisia's Islamist political movement. Speaking to France 24 on Tuesday, he highlighted his opponent's connection to Ennahda, stating that, "[Marzouki] is a respectable man, since he was the interim president for three years […]. If he obtained this result, it is because he was primarily supported by Ennahda officials."
Ennahda spokesperson Zied Ladhari declared in November that his party would not officially back a presidential candidate, to avoid "dominating the political scene." However, the party's supporters are likely to vote for Moncef Marzouki, who allied himself with the moderate Islamists in 2011.
Hamma Hammami, the candidate for the leftist Popular Front movement, came third in the race, with close to 8 percent of the vote. The Popular Front coalition has not yet announced which candidate it will back in the second round, but it is unlikely to support Marzouki, because of his ties to Ennahda.