Tunisia’s two main presidential candidates are expected to go head to head in a second round a run off following Sunday’s landmark election.
It would be the final step to full democracy after a revolution ousted authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali three years ago.
The frontrunner is 87-year-old former government official Beji Caid Essebsi with one exit poll giving him a big lead.
“Mr Baji Caid Essebsi, according to preliminary results is the first in the race, with a significant gap ahead of the second rival,” said Essebsi’s campaign manager. “And we want to thank the Tunisian people for their confidence.”
Essebsi’s rival, incumbent president Moncef Marzouki, believes he also has a lead.
In his hometown there were demonstrations against him. Around 200 people chanted, “leave Marzouuki leave.”
The Tunisian revolution was the first of the Arab Spring uprisings that followed in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
“People in the Arab world will watch Tunisia as a laboratory,” said political analyst Hammadi Rdissim. “We can do it, it’s not a myth, it can be a reality, and elections and democracy are possible in an Islamic country.”
As Tunisian picks their first directly elected president, many hope the North African nation will put years of demonstrations, political assassinations and rising terrorism firmly in the past.
The second round vote is expected to take place at the end of December.