TUNIS: Tunisians were voting Sunday in their first presidential election since the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, in a ballot set to round off an often fraught transition to democracy.
Among the 27 candidates, the favorite is former premier Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran whose anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party won parliamentary elections last month.
Others vying for the presidency include outgoing President Moncef Marzouki, several ministers who served under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, leftwinger Hamma Hammami, business magnate Slim Riahi and a lone woman, magistrate Kalthoum Kannou.
Some 5.3 million people are eligible to vote, with tens of thousands of police and troops deployed to guarantee security amid fears Islamist militants might seek to disrupt polling day.
Polling hours were restricted to just five in some 50 localities close to the Algerian border, where armed groups are active. Everywhere else, polls were due to close at 1700 GMT.
A run-off vote will be held at the end of December if no one secures an absolute majority.
Until the revolution, Tunisia knew only two presidents — Habib Bourguiba, the “father of independence” from France in 1956, and Ben Ali, who deposed him in a 1987 coup.
To prevent another dictatorship, presidential powers have been restricted under a new constitution, with executive prerogatives transferred to a premier drawn from parliament’s top party.
Essebsi has run on a campaign of “state prestige,” a slogan with wide appeal to Tunisians anxious for an end to instability.
Supporters argue only he can stand up to the Islamists who first held power in the post-Ben Ali era, but critics charge he is out to restore the old regime, having served under both former presidents.
Marzouki has been hammering home the argument that he is the only leader capable of preserving the gains of the uprising, and has said Sunday’s vote is the “last stand” for the old guard.
Moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which came second in the legislative election, has not put up a candidate and has invited its members “to elect a president who will guarantee democracy.”
Speculation has been rife on the make-up of a new government and the possibility of a coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda despite their fundamental differences.
Tunisia has won international plaudits, despite security and economic setbacks, for having largely steered clear of the violence, repression and lawlessness of fellow Arab Spring countries such as neighboring Libya.
Whoever wins, tackling the faltering economy will be a top priority, with unemployment, a leading cause of the revolution, running at 15 percent.