Presidential campaign gets under way in birthplace of Arab Spring, Tunisia

Tunisian presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi answers AFP journalists' questions during an interview on Nov 1, 2014 in Tunis. Campaigning began on Saturday for the presidential election in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, with secularist E
Tunisian presidential candidate Beji Caid Essebsi answers AFP journalists' questions during an interview on Nov 1, 2014 in Tunis. Campaigning began on Saturday for the presidential election in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, with secularist Essebsi seen as the frontrunner after his party won milestone parliamentary polls. -- PHOTO: AFP

TUNIS (AFP) - Campaigning began Saturday for a presidential election in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, with secularist Beji Caid Essebsi seen as the frontrunner after his party won milestone parliamentary polls.

Despite his age - Essebsi turns 88 six days after the Nov 23 vote - he is confident he will win after his Nidaa Tounes party came on top in last Sunday's legislative election, beating the Islamist Ennahda movement.

In an interview with AFP, Essebsi, a pillar of the old guard, said he will fight to gain an absolute majority in the vote.

Essebsi leads a field of 27, including incumbent Moncef Marzouki, woman magistrate Kalthoum Kannou and former ministers of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians hope both elections will provide much-sought stability nearly four years after the revolution that drove Ben Ali from power.

The presidential vote will be the first time Tunisians freely elect their head of state.

Between independence from France in 1956 and the revolution, Tunisia had just two presidents - the "father of independence" Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali who overthrew him in 1987.

Ben Ali was himself forced out, this time by people power, fleeing to Saudi Arabia on Jan 14, 2011.

In an effort to prevent a new dictatorship, the new president's powers will be restricted under a constitution adopted in January, with most executive power resting with the premier from the parliamentary majority.

Essebsi denies that his age is a hurdle.

"I have the age that I have... Youth is... a state of mind," he told AFP.

"I hope to have enough wisdom and vision for the future, in order to set aside negative things and look at positive things."

After independence, he became an adviser to Bourguiba and also held the ministerial portfolios of defence, interior and foreign affairs. He was parliament chief under Ben Ali.

Essebsi has vowed to restore the prestige of the state, a pledge that will be popular with many voters in a country destabilised by political, economic and security crises since the revolution.

He will officially launch his campaign on Sunday at Bourguiba's mausoleum in Monastir.

"I submitted my candidature because I believe it is useful... because my goal is to make Tunisia a 21st century country," he told AFP.

"We would like Tunisia to be governed in such a way that all factions, political and social, are involved. Of course it will be difficult, but we will work towards that."

He admitted that his long-time rival Ennahda appears to have accepted democracy, but insists that time will tell if the moderate Islamist party has really changed.

Ennahda, which has opposed the very principle of holding a presidential election, has not put forward its own candidate.

If Essebsi supporters see him as the only way to block the Islamist rise, his opponents accuse him of being a product of the old regime who seeks to restore it.

But Essebsi told AFP that stalwarts of the Ben Ali regime he plans to include in his team "have the right to take part in politics" like any other citizen.

"I am against settling old scores. I think we have to be more forward-thinking, because over the next two years Tunisia needs all her children."

Despite post-revolution instability, Tunisia is seen as the last hope of establishing a democratic regime in an Arab Spring state, the others having descended into chaos or repression.

But it still faces significant challenges, including a growing militant movement blamed for the deaths of dozens of police and soldiers and the killing of two anti-Islamist politicians.

Stability is also threatened by a weak economy and rampant unemployment, particularly among young graduates.

Poverty was the spark behind the revolution.

Ennahda, which dominated the political scene after the 2011 uprising, won only 69 of parliament's 217 seats on Oct 26.

Nidaa Tounes - formed just two years ago and comprising a coalition of leftist and secular groups including old guard figures - won 85.