TUNIS, Dec 21- Tunisians voted Sunday in the runoff of the first free presidential election in the country’s history, the final leg of an at times bumpy four year transition from dictatorship.
The second round vote pits 88 year old favourite Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the anti Islamist Nidaa Tounes party, against incumbent Moncef Marzouki, who held the post through an alliance with the moderate Islamist movement Ennahda.
Authorities deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and police to provide polling day security.
Just hours before polls opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), troops guarding ballot papers in the central region of Kairouan came under attack and shot dead one assailant and captured three, the defence ministry said.
Ahead of the landmark vote, which sets Tunisia apart from the turmoil of other Arab Spring countries, jihadists had issued a videotaped threat against the North African state’s political establishment.
It is the first time that Tunisians have freely elected their president since independence from France in 1956.
Amid tight security and the closure of main border posts with strife-torn neighbour Libya, almost 5.3 million Tunisians were eligible to vote.
Polls were due to close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) and the result is due to be announced between Monday and Wednesday.
A first round held on November 23 saw Essebsi win 39 percent of the vote, six percentage points ahead of Marzouki, a 69 year old former rights activist installed by parliament two months after December 2011 polls.
The vote is the country’s third in as many months, after Nidaa Tounes won an October parliamentary election, making Essebsi favourite to be the next president, but with powers curbed under constitutional amendments to guard against a return to dictatorship.
The campaign was marked by mudslinging, with Essebsi refusing to take part in a debate with Marzouki, claiming his opponent is an “extremist”.
Essebsi insists that Marzouki represents the Islamists, charging that they had “ruined” the country since the 2011 revolution which toppled veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and gave birth to the Arab Spring.
– ‘Dictatorship is over’ –
Marzouki in turn accused Essebsi, who served as a senior official in previous Tunisian regimes, of wanting to restore the old guard deposed in the revolution.
Voters said they regretted the lack of restraint shown by candidates in the campaign but believed the country was on the path towards democracy.
“Our candidates and their policies perhaps aren’t the best but we’re moving forward — the dictatorship is over,” said Tunis shopkeeper Mohammed Taieb.
In an Internet video posted Wednesday, jihadists claimed the 2013 murder of two secular politicians that plunged Tunisia into crisis, and warned of more killings of politicians and security forces.
Last year’s murders had threatened to derail Tunisia’s post Arab Spring transition until a compromise government was formed in January this year.
In the video, jihadist Abou Mossaab called on Tunisians to boycott the poll runoff, saying the authorities “are turning you into infidels with these elections”.
But defence ministry spokesman Belhassan Oueslati said he did not believe the jihadists were behind the pre dawn attack on a school in the Kairouan region where ballot papers had been stored under army guard.
“The vigilance of the soldiers and the swiftness of their response thwarted this operation and led to the death of a man armed with a hunting rifle and the arrest of three suspects,” Oueslati told AFP.
“Generally, the terrorists don’t use hunting rifles,” he added.