World Bulletin/News Desk
Tunisians began voting on Sunday in a presidential run-off election that completes the country's last steps to full democracy nearly fours years after an uprising that toppled autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
With a new progressive constitution and a full parliament elected in October, Tunisia is hailed as an example of democratic change for a region still struggling with the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.
Sunday's ballot has emerged as a race between a former Ben Ali official Beji Caid Essebsi recasting himself as a technocrat statesman and the incumbent President Moncef Marzouki who claims to defend the legacy of the 2011 revolution that forced Ben Ali into exile.
"The revolution has to continue. Tunisia is a leader in democracy in the Arab world, but the return of the old regime could put an end to that model," Marzouki said voting in the coastal town of Sousse.
Nearly 5.3 million Tunisian voters are eligible to cast ballot in Sunday's election. Voters are distributed among 33 electoral districts with over 10,000 polling stations across the country's 24 provinces.
Expatriate voters began casting their ballot in the polls on Friday and will continue until Sunday.
The first round of Tunisia's presidential election – in which 27 candidates competed – saw Essebsi winning some 1.9 million votes (39.4 percent) and Marzouki clinching roughly 1.1 million votes (33.4 percent).
Security measures were heightened around the residence of Tunisian presidential hopeful Beji Caid Essebsi following local media reports purporting "confirmed intelligence" of a plan to assassinate him.
Local radio station Mosaic quoted an unnamed security source as saying that there has been "confirmed intelligence" of a "plan to assassinate Essebsi," without providing further clarification.
There is a heavy security presence in the vicinity of Essebsi's house, which is located in Tunis' northern suburb of Sakra, and checkpoints were set up on the roads leading to house, an Anadolu Agency correspondent reported.
Old regime hopes makeover can win it the election
The 88-year-old was a minister in Bourguiba's government and is now standing for President himself. To win however he must convince voters to look past his more recent job -- speaker for the autocratic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who rigged elections to rule for 24 years until the country threw him out in 2011.
That revolt inspired "Arab Spring" uprisings across the Middle East. Where other nations struggle with post-revolt upheaval, Tunisia's presidential elections on Sunday highlight its successful shift to democracy and a new constitution.
But the race between Essebsi and incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, the human rights activist named president after the first free election of 2011, is also dominated by questions over the return of those close to Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia.
Some former regime officials have already secured parliamentary positions after Essebsi's secular party Nidaa Tounes took the most seats in an October general election.
The presidential candidate, who was once Ben Ali's parliamentary speaker, distances himself from the corruption and abuses associated with the past regime. Instead he offers his experience as a statesman that he says Tunisia needs after three years of instability.
"Do people really think at my age I will take over everything? I will be the president for all Tunisians," Essebsi said during a campaign stop earlier this month. "All I want is to return the prestige of the state."
Incorporating Ben Ali officials into politics was part of the political compromise that salvaged Tunisia's transition and set it apart from other countries, like Libya and Egypt, that still struggle after the Arab Spring to deal with past regime influence.
Ben Ali officials were not hunted down and a law to ban members of his party from politics never made it past initial proposals.
Now Essebsi, who regularly deflects criticism about his age with quips, refers to Bourguiba in his appeal to Tunisians now hoping for more stability.
Marzouki only talks of Essebsi in the context of the Ben Ali era. But he says a win for his opponent would undermine the legacy of the "Jasmine Revolution" and risk consolidating power in the hands of former regime men, known as the "Remnants".
"Essebsi is not a democrat. He doesn't know what democracy is," Marzouki said in a recent speech.
Yet should Essebsi win, victory would be tempered by the political and economic challenges facing Tunisia.
His party's slim margin in Congress also means it will be forced to compromise when lawmakers choose a prime minister and form a new government. It is unclear whether Nidaa Tounes would be able to work with the leftist Popular Front or the Ennahda in a national coalition -- both strong movements.
Ennahda remains a powerful political voice with 69 seats versus Nidaa Tounes' 85 seats in the 217-member legislature.
Many participants in the 2011 uprising say they too will be warily watching the return of old regime.
This week marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself alight in protest and triggered the uprising against the abuses and poor living conditions many suffered under Ben Ali.
"We paid a high price for the revolution and now just four years later the old regime is back with a new look and democratic talk," said Ali Makki, whose brother was shot dead in protests.
"We'll keep fighting for freedoms we won."