The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

A voter casts a ballot for president Sunday at a polling station in La Marsa, on the outskirts of Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

TUNIS — Tunisians voted Sunday in their second-ever presidential elections, widely seen 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 into polling stations throughout the day to choose from among 26 candidates who represent a wide spectrum of political, social and religious views.

No candidate was expected to gain the majority needed to win the election in the first round; authorities weren’t expected to release official results until Monday or Tuesday.

The vote Sunday followed nearly two weeks of boisterous campaigning with loud yet peaceful rallies, often held next to each other, a rare scene in a region dominated by monarchs and dictators. Some voters said they were proud of Tunisia’ s unique standing in the region. 

“I am happy to vote,” homemaker 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.”

Still, many Tunisians are frustrated by their living conditions and politically alienated from their leaders and political parties, according to polls and analysts. 

As polls closed Sunday evening, election observers said preliminary figures showed a turnout of around 35 percent, nearly 30 points less than in the 2014 presidential elections. As the drop became apparent Sunday afternoon, election officials urged more youths, the biggest group of disillusioned Tunisians, to go vote.

The largest field to compete in a presidential election here included 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. A runoff in the coming weeks is expected to determine the next president, who will hold office for a five-year term.

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 hasn’t brought the economic stability or security that many had hoped. 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 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 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.

Tunisia’s presidential election is set to test the Arab Spring’s only democracy

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 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 portrayed himself as a populist who could change the political system as an outsider.

Two 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.”

Also polling well was Kais Said, a 61-year-old law professor who belongs to no political party and campaigned only by meeting voters on their doorsteps to explain his political views.

Some of the 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 was the party’s first presidential candidate.

Also running were 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 included political outsiders such as Abir Moussi, a 45-year-old lawyer and one of two women running. An unapologetic supporter of Ben Ali, she campaigned for support from Tunisians nostalgic for the days of the former dictator, when the economy and security were stronger.

One clear divide in Sunday’s vote was between the secularists and the Islamists. Many Tunisians said they were 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.”

Others said they were so disillusioned by party politics and the lack of progress by the government that they were voting for candidates they perceived as outsiders.

“All the presidential candidates are the same, but [Moussi] is different than others,” said Rida Sassi, who works at a photo studio. “We are not sure about any of them, whether they are good or not.

“Maybe a female president will be better than a man.”

No nationality heeded the call to come fight for ISIS like Tunisians did. Now they’re stuck.

Meet Souad Abderrahim, the first female mayor of Tunisia’s capital in 160 years

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news