December 20, 2014 / 10:48 PM / 3 years ago

Tunisians vote in historic presidential run-off

Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki (C) greets supporters during a re-election campaign in Tunis December 19, 2014.Zoubeir Souissi

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisians vote on Sunday in a presidential run-off election that completes the country's last steps to full democracy nearly fours years after the uprising that toppled autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

With a new progressive constitution and a full parliament elected in October, Tunisia is hailed as an example of democratic change for a region still struggling with the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.

The nation has mostly avoided the post-revolt divisions troubling Libya and Egypt, but Sunday's election has emerged as a race between a former Ben Ali official and the incumbent who claims to defend the legacy of the 2011 revolution.

Frontrunner Beji Caid Essebsi, a former parliament speaker under Ben Ali, won 39 percent of votes in the first round in November with current president Moncef Marzouki taking 33 percent of the ballots.

Essebsi, 88, dismisses critics who say he would mark a return of the old regime stalwarts. He says he is the technocrat Tunisia needs after three messy years of the Islamist-led coalition government that followed the revolt.

Marzouki, a former activist during the Ben Ali era, has painted an Essebsi presidency as a setback for the "Jasmine Revolution" that forced the former leader to flee the country into exile. But many critics tie Marzouki’s own presidency to the Islamist party's government and its mistakes.

"We are going to get back to life now with Essebsi, and forget the disaster of the last three years of Marzouki and the Islamists," said Fathia Ben Saleh, at an Essebsi rally in Tunis.

"We don't have any worries about democracy with Essebsi." Compromise has been key in Tunisian politics. Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes party managed to reach a deal with Islamist Ennahda to overcome a crisis triggered by the murder of two secular leaders last year.

Ennahda eventually stepped down at the start of this year to make way for a technocrat transitional cabinet until elections. But the Islamists remain a powerful force after winning the second largest number of seats in the new parliament.

The presidency post holds only limited powers over national defense and foreign policy. In Tunisia, the parliament, led by Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes party who won the most seats, will be key to selecting a new prime minister to lead the government. Ennahda and the leftwing Popular Front movement - both well-organized and supported -- would be powerful opponents. Tunisia's new government must still tackle the threat of Islamist militants, and also potentially politically sensitive economic reforms in a country where many are still more concerned over jobs and the high cost of living.

"I won't vote for Essebsi or Marzouki. The first was never a democrat and we know his past," said Imed Jouini, a unemployed man at a Tunis cafe watching campaigning. "The second doesn't know how to do anything except bury police who were killed by terrorists."

Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Andrew Hay

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