Tunisians voting in unpredictable presidential contest

Voting ended in Tunisia on Sunday in the country’s presidential election with most seeking a leader who can curtail high unemployment and a surging cost of living.

But with only about 35 percent of eligible voters taking the time to cast ballots, it was a blemish on the second presidential vote since longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was removed during the revolution in 2011.

Hours before polls closed, electoral commission head Nabil Baffoun urged Tunisians to get out and vote as by 3pm turnout stood only at 27.8 percent. In the 2014 election, turnout was higher than 50 percent.

Sunday’s election was brought forward by the death in July of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi, who had served as head of state since 2014.

Haifa Baccouche said she was angry at the list of available candidates but still went out “to choose the best of a bad lot”.

The woman, in her 30s, said she had no confidence in Tunisia’s “mediocre political class”, but she still wanted to exercise her right to vote and advance the country’s fledgeling democracy.

She summed up the feelings of many Tunisians exasperated by power struggles between politicians and their inability to combat unemployment and a high cost of living.

Baccouche has a degree in biology but works in a call centre, having failed to find a job in her field.

‘Very worst up’

More than seven million people were eligible to choose among 24 challengers, including some of Tunisia’s most prominent politicians.

Tunisia’s president has limited powers – in charge of foreign policy, defence and national security – and governs alongside a prime minister chosen by parliament who has authority over domestic affairs.

Candidates must secure 50 percent of the vote to win outright, but if none of the hopefuls obtain a majority the two with the most votes will advance to a second, decisive round.

Polls opened at 8am (07:00 GMT) and some will remain open until 6pm, while others will close two hours earlier for security reasons.

Leila Thabbi, a 40-year-old housewife, came to the polls with her toddler. 

“I am voting for the future of Tunisia for my children,” Thabbi told Al Jazeera. “I am worried for Tunisia. The situation gets worse and worse, there are no opportunities, especially for my children.”

The crowded field of 26 was narrowed slightly by the last-minute withdrawal of two candidates in favour of Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi just before Saturday’s campaign blackout.

Zbidi has pledged he will change Tunisia’s constitution to strengthen the presidency.

Prominent candidates

Among the key players is media mogul Nabil Karoui – behind bars due to an ongoing money-laundering investigation – Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Chahed’s popularity has been tarnished by a slow economy and he has found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention in late August was politically-inspired.

Last week, Karoui, 56, launched an open-ended hunger strike but on Friday, an appeal to have the Tunisian businessman released from jail was rejected, his party and lawyers said.

Some hopefuls have tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials in a bid to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels.

One key newcomer is Kais Said, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, who has avoided attaching his bid to a political party, going door-to-door instead to drum up support for his conservative platform.

Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July, but it is apparent the shifting political landscape has left many voters undecided.

Standing in a queue at a polling station in Tunis, Radhia, 65, told Al Jazeera she did not know who she would vote for, and would decide once her turn came. 

Meanwhile, Monder Jouini, a 58-year-old bookshop owner, said he was considering two candidates but remained undecided.

“I’m not worried, even if it is someone that I hate [who wins], that is elections – you vote and something happens,” Jouini said, adding the president is not as important as the parliament.

INTERACTIVE: Tunisia presidential elections 2019 - Candidates

Reporting from Tunis, Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker said voters at one polling station expressed hopes their vote was going to make a difference.

That’s because “jobs, the economy, unemployment … and the security situation is worse than it was before 2011”, Dekker said.

“The question people are asking here: ‘What is democracy really giving them?’

“They want change, they don’t just want another person to come and sit on the chair, as they say,” Dekker added.

Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living by close to 30 percent since 2016. 

Some 70,000 security agents were deployed for the election, including 50,000 focused solely on polling stations, according to the interior ministry.

Exit polls are to be released overnight Sunday into Monday, but preliminary results were not expected from the electoral commission until Tuesday.

The date of the second and final round has not been announced, but it must happen by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls, slated for October 6.

Additional reporting by Layli Foroudi in Tunis 

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