TUNIS, Tunisia — A veteran politician from the previous regime that ran on a platform of restoring the prestige of the state took the lead in Tunisia's first free and fair presidential election Sunday, according to exit polls. But there will still likely be a runoff next month.
Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, replicated the success of his Nida Tunis (Tunisia's Call) party in last month's legislative elections by taking 47 percent of the vote, with outgoing interim president Moncef Marzouki following with 27 percent, according to one polling company. Other polls gave similar figures, indicating that the two men will go head to head in a second round set for Dec. 28.
Marzouki's staffers contested the polls, maintaining their candidate had the plurality. Official results are expected in the coming days. The electoral commission said 60 percent of the 5.3 million registered voters participated.
The vote appeared to be a choice between fears over security and the freedoms brought by their revolution, with Essebsi representing the stability of the old ways and Marzouki the fervor of the revolution.
The North African country's transition has remained on track in sharp contrast to the upheavals brought by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region, including the brutal military coup in Egypt and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Tunisians for the vote, calling the country's transition "an inspiration to all those in the region and around the world."
It hasn't been easy for Tunisia, however, and the nearly four years since the revolution have been marked by social unrest, terrorist attacks and high inflation that has voters punishing the moderate Islamists that first came to power.
"The thing I'm worried most about for the future is terrorism. Right now, we don't know who's coming into the country, and this is a problem," said Amira Judei, 21, who voted in the southern city of Kasserine, near the border with Algeria and a point of terrorist attacks. Voting hours in the rural regions along the border were reduced because of security fears.
But Judei insisted that "the most important priority is unemployment." Tunisia's revolution began in areas such as Kasserine in the impoverished south, and the country's 15 percent unemployment rate nearly doubles when it comes to young people.
Out of the nearly two dozen candidates for the presidency, Essebsi clearly captured people's yearning for a return to stability after the disorder of the last few years.
"He is a veteran politician with experience that can ensure security and stability," said Mouldi Cherni, a driver living in Tunis' Carthage suburb who voted for Essebsi. "The people are tired, life has grown expensive and Tunisians don't even have enough to make an ojja," the local omelet favored by the poor.
The strikes, social unrest and occasional political assassinations have kept away foreign investment and the economy foundered after the revolution as an Islamist-led coalition government struggled with the country's problems.
In Kasserine, Deputy Mayor Ridha Abassi said his constituents had once voted Islamist but chose Essebsi's Nida Tunis party in last month's parliamentary elections — a choice that seems to have been replicated for the presidential contests.
Many of these people voted in 2011 for the Islamist Ennahda Party government "and the result was terrorism and abuse of power," Abassi said at a cafe near the city's busy bus station. "Even though they know Nida Tunis has a large number of old regime followers in it, they are voting for them to break the power of Ennahda."
The Ennahda Party stepped down at the start of the year in favor of a government of technocrats, and chose not to run a presidential candidate, though many of its members are believed to back Marzouki.
There are fears that Essebsi has authoritarian tendencies and that his domination of the parliament and the presidency could bring back the old one-party state.
Chakib Romdhani — a 31-year-old filmmaker who participated in Tunisia's 2011 uprising but had never voted before — described how he was torn between the possibility of a new dictatorship and the unrest of Marzouki's years.
"I feel a great fear from those of the old regime becoming more and more powerful," he said as he went to vote in Tunis. "I have another fear that comes from the experience of the three-year presidency of Marzouki and the country slowly falling apart."
In Tunisia, while the main power resides with the prime minister, the presidency does have some responsibilities for defense and foreign affairs.
The polls placed Hama Hammami of the left-wing Popular Front coalition in third place with just 10 percent of the vote, followed by millionaire populist Slim Riahi.
Kimball reported from Kasserine.