Tunisians vote in first free presidential election since Arab Spring

Supporters of Tunisian presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi attend his last meeting on Dec 19, 2014, on the Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis. Tunisians voted on Sunday, Dec 21, in the runoff of the first free presidential election in the North Afri
Supporters of Tunisian presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi attend his last meeting on Dec 19, 2014, on the Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis. Tunisians voted on Sunday, Dec 21, in the runoff of the first free presidential election in the North African country's history, the final leg of a bumpy four-year transition whose beginning heralded the Arab Spring. -- PHOTO: AFP

TUNIS (AFP) - Tunisians voted Sunday in the runoff of the first free presidential election in the North African country's history, the final leg of a bumpy four-year transition whose beginning heralded the Arab Spring.

The second round vote pits 88-year-old favourite Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the anti-Islamist Nidaa Tounes party, against incumbent Moncef Marzouki, who held the post through an alliance with the moderate Islamist movement Ennahda.

Ahead of the landmark vote, which sets Tunisia apart from the turmoil of other Arab Spring countries, extremists issued a videotaped threat against the state's political establishment.

It is the first time that Tunisians have freely elected their president since independence from France in 1956.

Amid tight security and the closure of main border posts with strife-torn neighbour Libya, almost 5.3 million Tunisians were eligible to vote.

Polls opened at 8am and were due to close at 6pm (1am Monday Singapore time).

The result is due to be announced between Monday and Wednesday.

A first round held on November 23 saw Essebsi win 39 percent of the vote, six percentage points ahead of Marzouki, a 69-year-old former rights activist installed by parliament two months after December 2011 polls.

The vote is the country's third in as many months, after Nidaa Tounes won an October parliamentary election, making Essebsi favourite to be the next president, but with powers curbed under constitutional amendments to guard against a return to dictatorship.

- Mudslinging campaign -

The campaign was marked by mudslinging, with Essebsi refusing to take part in a debate with Marzouki, claiming his opponent is an "extremist".

Essebsi insists that Marzouki represents the Islamists, charging that they had "ruined" the country since the 2011 revolution which toppled veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and gave birth to the Arab Spring.

Marzouki in turn accused Essebsi, who served as a senior official in previous Tunisian regimes, of wanting to restore the old guard deposed in the revolution.

He even suggested that Essebsi's camp was preparing to "win through fraud", drawing a sharp rebuke from the electoral commission.

In an Internet video posted Wednesday, extremists claimed the 2013 murder of two secular politicians that plunged Tunisia into crisis, warning of more killings of politicians and security forces.

Last year's murders had threatened to derail Tunisia's post-Arab Spring transition until a compromise government was formed in January this year.

The authorities have deployed tens of thousands of troops and police to provide security on polling day.

In addition to the extremist threat, Tunisia faces major challenges.

Its economy is struggling to recover from the upheaval of the revolution, and there are also fears of widespread joblessness causing social unrest.

The International Crisis Group think tank has said Tunisia was the "last hope" for a peaceful transition to democracy, setting it apart from other Arab Spring countries such as Libya and Egypt.

"In the context of the meagre harvest of the Arab Spring, Tunisia remains the last hope for a successful democratic transition," it said.

"The country and its allies have every reason to ensure that Tunisia continues on its exceptional course."