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Essebsi claims victory in Tunisia polls

BEIRUT |, with agencies - December 22, 2014, 11h30
Veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi claimed victory in Sunday’s Tunisian presidential runoff.
Official results were still awaited and the campaign team of his rival, Moncef Marzouki, did not concede defeat. But soon after polls closed, Essebsi announced he had won and jubilant supporters took to the streets of the capital in celebration.

Essebsi’s secular party already leads the parliament after earlier this year defeating the Islamist party that had won Tunisia’s first legislative election in 2011.

With a new progressive constitution and a string of elections successfully completed, Tunisia is hailed as an example of democratic change in a region that is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.

“I dedicate my victory to the martyrs of Tunisia. I thank Marzouki, and now we should work together without excluding anyone,” Essebsi, told local television, according to the Daily Star.

However, the rival campaign manager for Marzouki, Adnen Monsar, dismissed the victory claims, saying it was a very close call. “Nothing is confirmed so far,” he told reporters.

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

The second round vote pitted 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.

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

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.

Voters said they regretted the lack of restraint shown by candidates in the campaign but believed the country was on the path towards democracy.

"Our candidates and their policies perhaps aren't the best but we're moving forward -- the dictatorship is over," said Tunis shopkeeper Mohammed Taieb.

In an Internet video posted Wednesday, jihadists claimed the 2013 murder of two secular politicians that plunged Tunisia into crisis, and warned 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.

In the video, jihadist Abou Mossaab called on Tunisians to boycott the poll runoff, saying the authorities "are turning you into infidels with these elections".

But defense ministry spokesman Belhassan Oueslati said he did not believe the jihadists were behind the pre-dawn attack on a school in the Kairouan region where ballot papers had been stored under army guard.

"The vigilance of the soldiers and the swiftness of their response thwarted this operation and led to the death of a man armed with a hunting rifle and the arrest of three suspects," Oueslati told AFP.

"Generally, the terrorists don't use hunting rifles," he added.

In addition to the jihadist 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 meager 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."
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