TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A veteran politician from Tunisia's old regime will face off against a symbol of its democratic revolution in a runoff that is expected to be very close, official election results showed Tuesday.
Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, garnered just over 39 percent of the vote while interim president and former human rights campaigner Moncef Marzouki finished with 33 percent, according to results released by the electoral commission from Sunday's contest between 22 candidates.
With just 6 percent separating the two candidates, who represent wildly divergent visions of Tunisia's future, the runoff set for two weeks from now could be a very tight race. It will be closely watched around the region, where most reforms inspired by the Arab Spring have foundered.
In 2011, Tunisians overthrew secular dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who oversaw an oppressive police state that targeted activists and Islamists but was also known for its well-educated prosperous middle class.
After the revolution, the country embarked on a rocky transition that saw a coalition led by the Islamist Ennahda Party come to power, but was characterized by a failing economy, social unrest and terrorist attacks.
The new freedoms after the revolution allowed long repressed labor and geographical grievances bubble to the surface as everyone expected quick fixes to long festering problems.
Essebsi, who held several positions under Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, and later served as parliamentary speaker under Ben Ali, presented himself as a return to stability. His party, Nida Tunis (Tunisia's Call), won the most seats in last month's parliamentary election.
He talks about restoring the prestige of the state, which some fear means dampening down the newfound freedoms and returning powers to the once feared security services.
Marzouki, a secular intellectual, has been campaigning as the voice of the revolution. He has formed an informal pact with the Islamists, who were imprisoned by tens of thousands under Ben Ali and Bourguiba and share his fear of a return to dictatorship.
Essebsi, has in turn labeled Marzouki as a pawn of the Islamists seeking to dismantle Tunisia's progressive reputation.
There is a "tension between people really dedicated to the revolution and fear of return of dictatorship under Essebsi and those on the other hand who want to protect not just secularism but want a technocratic experienced government," said Chris Alexander, a Tunisia expert at North Carolina's Davidson College who was there for the elections.
The Islamist Ennahda Party didn't field or endorse a candidate in the presidential election.
The final result will depend on how the supporters of the candidate who ended third, Hamma Hammami of the left-wing Popular Front, will vote. They too fear the return of the old authoritarian regime but are also opposed to the Islamists.
Pollster Nebil Belaam of Emrohd Consulting said his research indicates that the candidate who adopts the most conciliatory tone to unite Tunisians will have the best chance of winning.
The exact date of the runoff depends on if there are any challenges to the official results but could be as soon as Dec. 7 or Dec. 14, amid fears that an extended campaign could increase the animosity and polarization in the country.
Alone among the countries that experienced the Arab Spring uprising, Tunisia has not degenerated into violence like Libya, Yemen and Syria or wholesale repression like Egypt where the military overthrew an elected Islamist president.
Yet, Tunisia too struggles with the same issues of competing nationalist and Islamist forces, as well as trying to decide the degree of freedom to allow in society, explained Issandr El Amrani, North Africa director for the International Crisis Group.
"In every country affected by the Arab Spring you have this tension," he said. "The demand for new blood and the new middle class and the people's need, after three difficult roller coaster years, for stability and safety."
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.