An 88-year-old political veteran has been elected president of Tunisia, a country whose young people once electrified the world by overthrowing its 73-year-old dictator in 2011 and triggering the Arab Spring uprisings across the region.
The election result is a measure of Tunisia’s yearning for a return to stability: After four hard years of democratic transition, violence and economic crises, this one-time revolution of the youth has turned to a symbol of the old regime.
Beji Caid Essebsi won 55.68 percent of the vote, according to Monday’s results, and campaigned on restoring the “prestige of the state,” evoking the legacy of Tunisia’s founding father Habib Bourguiba who built the country, educated its people but brooked little opposition.
Essebsi defeated the human rights activist who became the interim president after the revolution, Moncef Marzouki, who took 44.32 percent of the vote. Exit polls had predicted similar results soon after the voted ended Sunday night.
Alone among the countries that experienced the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the transition in Tunisia has remained on track, but it has still been buffeted by the turmoil in the region, which brought down the Islamists that first won elections after the revolution.
As the economic problems mounted and radical extremists began assassinating politicians in 2013, the moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party and its ally Marzouki lost popularity.
“It’s the failure of Marzouki that made Essebsi look like a statesman that would help Tunisians face and cope with these major challenges,” said Kamel Labidi, a former journalist and freedom of expression advocate, explaining the popularity of Essebsi and his party Nida Tunis (Tunisia’s Call).
He cautioned, though, that many in Nida Tunis, a loose collection of old-regime officials and trade unionists, do not have a reputation for caring about human rights and Essebsi himself never spoke out against the autocratic rule of Bourguiba or his successor Zine El Abdine Ben Ali.
The victory of Nida Tunis in parliamentary elections in October will give Essebsi unprecedented power to shape the country now, as he will dominate both the executive and legislative branches.
Voting was largely pronounced free and fair, with a participation rate of 60 percent, less than elections in October and November, and with lower participation among young people.