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With Election, Tunisia Solidifies Its Democracy Success Story


Tunisians are making an historic decision today as they choose their first elected president since the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali almost four years ago. The small nation on the North African coast has been a bright spot in a region roiled with violence, chaos and civil rights crackdowns. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from the capital, Tunis. Good morning, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what's the mood like there on voting day?

FADEL: Well, in the lead up to today you heard political debate in the streets of the capital - people arguing over who they would vote for. And today, as of 10 a.m., the electoral commission says already 14 percent of registered voters have turned out. People are in lines voting, saying they are doing this for the future of their country to preserve freedoms or security depending on who they're voting for. A lot of people coming out to vote out of frustration, really, because the transition over the past four years has been so difficult with the economy, with prices skyrocketing, with concerns about security.

MARTIN: It is a runoff election. Can you tell us about the candidates?

FADEL: Yes. There are two men. Beji Caid Essebsi, who is 88 years old, and he's a French educated lawyer who served in both of the past regimes. So a lot of his critics say really he might bring in a softer version of the old regime that many Tunisians ousted. His supporters saying he'll bring stability and security.

And his opponent is Moncef Marzouki, who is 69, a populist, a dissident against the past regime. He served as interim president for the last three years. And his critics say these past three years have been difficult. Prices skyrocketing, political assassinations - and so because of that, they won't vote for him. He also has a large base of Islamists voting for him. He himself is not an Islamist, has not been endorsed by an Islamist movement. But he has a lot of revolutionaries and Islamists voting for him.

MARTIN: Economic problems, political assassinations - it doesn't sound like things have been going remarkably well for Tunisia over the past four years. Do you get the sense that people there feel things have changed for the better?

FADEL: Well, I think a lot of people expected a lot out of the revolt in 2011. They expected their lives to get better. And on a day-to-day basis many people say they haven't. They haven't seen the social justice and reforms they expected. But relatively to other countries, they do feel like they're doing better - that they're preserving a system, that they're building a system that could be something great in the Middle East because it's been generally peaceful because it's stuck to a democratic path. And so today they still are on a path of electoral democracy, of representative democracy. So whatever the outcome is, Tunisians seem to agree that their system is going better than others. But they are frustrated that their lives aren't that much better than it was four years ago.

MARTIN: NPR's Leila Fadel. Thanks so much, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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