Tunisia seeks new leader to boost economy, fight terror

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) – Tunisians are casting ballots in their North African country’s second democratic presidential election, choosing among 26 candidates for a leader who can safeguard its young democracy and tackle its unemployment, corruption and economic despair.

The voting followed a noisy but brief campaign – 12 days – marked by backbiting and charges of corruption among the contenders. All vowed to boost the country’s flagging economy and protect it from further deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.

Tunisia is in many ways an exception in the Arab world, with its budding democracy lurching forward despite a flagging economy and a battle with extremists. Some 6,000 Tunisian and international observers, including from the EU and the United States, are present for the vote.

More than 100,000 security forces were on guard Sunday – 70,000 police and 32,000 troops – as seven million registered voters were called to the polls. Military surveillance was especially tight in border regions near Algeria and Libya where Islamist extremists are active. For security reasons, four areas were closing polls two hours ahead of the 6pm closure elsewhere.

Despite the stakes, at 1 p.m., or halfway through the 10 hours that voters had to get to the polls, the participation rate was only at 16.31 per cent, according to the body in charge of elections.

There was no clear favorite, suggesting that Sunday’s vote, which includes two female candidates, will only be the first round of the presidential election.

The plethora of contenders includes a jailed media magnate, Nabil Karoui, who was arrested last month in a money laundering and tax evasion probe but led polls ahead of the vote. He was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.

Also getting attention was Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, 44, who boasts of “saving the country from bankruptcy” during his three years as head of government, with economic indicators showing signs of improvement.

Another candidate being watched is the vice president of the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, 71. A reluctant contender, he was pushed into running to profit from the large base of his party, which ran the government from 2011-2014 and is the largest single force in Parliament.