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TUNIS - Tunisians went to the polls on Sunday to pick their first directly elected president, the final step in the North African state's transition to full democracy following a 2011 revolution that ousted long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Official results were yet to be announced, but shortly after the polls closed, Beji Caid Essebsi's secularist Nidaa Tounes party claimed he was ahead by at least 10 percentage points.
Essebsi, a former Ben Ali official, and rival Moncef Marzouki, the incumbent president, were expected to be front runners, but analysts said neither was likely to win enough votes to avoid a run-off in December.
More than three years since overthrowing Ben Ali's one-party rule, Tunisia adopted a new constitution, and rival secularists and Islamist parties have largely avoided the turmoil that has plagued other Arab states swept by popular revolts.
Sunday's vote follows the general election in October when the Nidaa Tounes party won the most seats in the parliament, beating the Islamist party Ennahda that had won the first free poll in 2011.
"Another distinguished day in the history of Tunisia," said Mouna Jeballi, voting in Soukra district in Tunis. "Now we are the only country in the Arab world who does not know who their president will be until after the vote is finished."
Tunisia's new government is already facing tough choices, with international lenders demanding difficult reforms in public spending to boost growth and create jobs. At the same time, it has launched a crackdown on Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda who have attacked the armed forces and killed two secularist opposition leaders last year.
Tunisia was the first to topple its long-standing ruler, giving birth to the Arab Spring revolts that followed in Libya, Egypt and Yemen and the war in Syria.