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IRI's Scott Mastic Discusses the Tunisia Election with the Wall Street Journal

December 23, 2014
By Tamer El-Ghobashy

Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old remnant of the old authoritarian regime, won this country’s first free presidential elections on a promise to restore stability after years of political and economic turmoil.

The win, confirmed by electoral authorities on Monday, cemented the grip of Mr. Essebsi’s party on the North African nation that sparked a wave of political upheaval in the region in 2011 and remains the only country where transition to democracy has been peaceful.

While international and domestic observers hailed Sunday’s presidential runoff as credible, some voters said they worried Tunisia is risking a setback by giving one party control over two branches of government.

Mr. Essebsi, who held various cabinet posts spanning 55 years of autocratic rule, secured 55.68% of votes against his rival, interim President Moncef Marzouki, according to official results. Mr. Marzouki took 44.32%. He won decisive majorities in many of the nation’s heartland regions where he remained popular—an indication that Tunisians remain divided over the direction of their political transition nearly four years after the popular revolt unseated longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Voter turnout of 60% was significantly lower than previous elections, signaling some had become disillusioned with the halting pace of the transition and the absence of tangible improvements to their lives.

Mr. Essebsi served as chief of the interior, defense, and foreign affairs ministries and speaker of parliament under both Mr. Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Mr. Essebsi didn’t wait for the official results to be announced to declare victory, proclaiming his win shortly after polls closed Sunday.

He promised to foster inclusive politics in a bid to quell fears that his political pedigree would revive authoritarian tendencies. He said he would work to include disparate political streams in his administration.

“I will be the president of all Tunisians,” he said in remarks carried on national television. “I want to tell everybody that we are all Tunisians in the same country.”

The remarks came amid reports that small pockets of violent protest had broken out in southern Tunisia by people angry over the election results, fearing it was a return of the old regime, witnesses and authorities said.

Mr. Marzouki, 69 years old, sought to quell the tension, congratulating his opponent publicly and calling for calm, saying the democratic process had worked as intended.

“I call on everyone to refrain from any forms of incitement and hatred,” he said. “The success of the elections and the finalization of the transitional phase is itself a big gain for all Tunisians, whatever our choices and our attitudes.”

In the coastal cities of Tunis and Sfax, Tunisia’s business and cultural centers, Mr. Essebsi’s win was celebrated with small rallies where people chanted and waved flags.

The peaceful handover of power marked a historic moment in the nation and the region, which has seen civil war in Libya and a military coup in Egypt following the fall of autocratic regimes in those countries.

Still, Tunisia’s success will be tested as attention turns to naming a prime minister and cabinet in a parliament dominated by two parties with opposing political ideologies.

In October parliamentary elections, Nida Tunis, Mr. Essebsi’s party, won a plurality of seats in parliament—upending the dominance of a moderate Islamist party that had risen in elections following Mr. Ben Ali’s fall.

Mr. Essebsi had created Nida Tunis, a loose grouping of liberals, leftists, old regime figures and trade unionists, with the stated purpose of weakening the Islamists’ grip on power. While campaigning, he pledged to restore Tunisia’s “state prestige,” security and economic stability.

Mr. Marzouki, a human-rights activist and physician who resisted Mr. Ben Ali’s regime, was elected as interim president in 2011 by a constituent assembly dominated by the Islamist Ennahda Party.

Ennahda has secured the second-largest number of seats in parliament and its leaders have indicated a willingness to enter into a national unity government with Nida Tunis, but they also said they would relish the role of opposition.

The formation of a cabinet is set to begin once Mr. Essebsi is sworn in as president.

Negative campaigning prevented both candidates from articulating policies and platforms, said Scott Mastic, the Middle East and North Africa director for the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group that is partly funded by the U.S. government and monitors democratic transitions. As a result, there were few clues as to how the new government will address Tunisia’s pressing economic issues and a security threat along border regions from a low-level Islamist insurgency.

“The real concern is that no one has a good idea to address Tunisia’s 2.3% growth rate last year or the 30% unemployment among college graduates,” he said. “Unless the new elected government working with the president does something about these problems, Tunisia could yet fail.”