TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's influential Islamist party announced Saturday that it will not be endorsing a candidate in the presidential elections set for Nov. 23.
The backing of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, which is not running a candidate of its own, was eagerly awaited and would have been a major deciding factor in the election.
Instead the party's ruling council announced after an overnight meeting that its supporters were free to vote for any candidate.
There are 27 candidates running for the supreme office in the country, with veteran politician 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi widely seen as the frontrunner.
Essebsi's liberal party Nida Tunis (Tunisia's Call) won the most seats in October's parliamentary elections, running largely on an anti-Ennahda platform.
There had been speculation that Ennahda would back the incumbent, President Moncef Marzouki, against Essebsi.
The Islamists dominated elections after the overthrow of Tunisia's dictator in 2011 but lost popularity after a transition marked by social unrest, economic problems and terrorist attacks.
They came in second in the Oct. 26 parliamentary elections.
The main issues of the presidential election campaign which began a week ago have been the weak economy and accompanying high unemployment and fears over terrorist attacks.
Under the new constitution written after the revolution, power resides largely in the hands of the prime minister and his parliamentary coalition but the president still presides over foreign affairs and defense.
Alone among the countries experienced the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, Tunisia's democratic transition has remained on track.