Tunis - Voting was continuing on Monday after Tunisians cast ballots in the country's first presidential election since the overthrow of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a 2011 uprising.
Official results are expected by Tuesday. Shortly after polls closed on Sunday, aides of former prime minister Beji Caid Essibsi - whose secularist Nidaa Tounes party was the top vote-getter in October's parliamentary election - claimed he was ahead of interim President Moncef Marzouki.
State-run Tunisia 1 television aired projections showing Essibsi with nearly 48% of the vote, compared to Marzouki with 27%. Other exit polls showed a smaller margin between the top finishers.
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A record 27 candidates ran in the presidential race, and if no candidate obtains an outright majority, a run-off between the top two contenders will be held on 28 December.
Voting increased momentum on Sunday afternoon after weak turnout earlier in the day, electoral officials said.
Independent election commission chief Shafiq Sarsar said nearly 54% of the 5.2 million eligible voters had cast their ballots by 16:30. Polls closed at 18:00.
Sarsar said voting ran smoothly Sunday without "serious violations".
Election observers reported isolated vote-buying and other attempts to influence voters. European monitoring teams reported that the vote went off somewhat better than in last month's parliamentary ballot.
Scott Mastic, Middle East and North Africa director for the US-based International Republican Institute, told dpa that the election was uneventful, though voter enthusiasm was lacking.
Some voters said they were eager about participating in the presidential election, a milestone in Tunisia's democratic transition.
"It is the first time that I have voted for a president," said a veiled woman named Hajer. "I don't want someone in this position who was with Ben Ali in the past. I prefer a president who used to be a revolutionary."
Hajer, who cast her ballot in Tunis, said she voted for Marzouki.
Sauda, another female voter, said she backed the 87-year-old Essibsi.
"I voted during the time of Ben Ali, but this election is very different," Sauda said at a polling station in Tunis. "Now we have a choice."
A senior official in Essibsi's campaign said a presidential runoff was likely. "We are ready to accept any result of the election," Mohsen Marzouq said at a press conference after voting ended.
The Tunisian constitution adopted this year grants the prime minister greater powers than the president, who is responsible for foreign affairs and defence.
The new president will have to grapple with re-establishing security in Tunisia, where suspected Islamist insurgents have carried out attacks, mainly against security forces, in recent months.
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About 100 000 members of the security forces were deployed Sunday to keep peace during the election, police spokesman Mohammed al-Erawi said.
Voting in volatile provinces near the Algerian border started two hours behind schedule for security reasons, according to the election commission.
Tunisia temporarily closed its border with troubled neighbour Libya.
The legislative and presidential polls complete the democratization process in Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
The North African country is widely seen as the sole success story of the Arab revolutionary movements. Revolts in Libya, Syria and Yemen have all led to varying degrees of ongoing conflict, and Egypt saw its Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, elected in 2012, deposed by the army last year.