Tunisia Islamists avoid backing presidential candidate

TUNIS - Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party, which came second behind its secular rival in landmark parliamentary polls last month, said Saturday it was not backing any candidate in a forthcoming presidential election.

The party, which won 69 out of 217 parliamentary seats in October, is not fielding a candidate for the November 23 vote in the impoverished North African nation, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Ennahda's consultative council also decided not to endorse any presidential candidate and to leave the choice to members to elect a "president who guarantees democracy," the party said on Twitter.

Council president Fethi Ayadi said that Ennahda "calls on its members to choose the correct person who will lead the democratic process... and realise the goals of the revolution" that toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Tunisia is seen as the last hope of establishing a democratic regime in an Arab Spring state, the others having descended into chaos or repression.

But it still faces significant challenges, including a growing jihadist movement, a weak economy and social unrest.

A total of 27 candidates are set to compete for the role of president, with former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, widely tipped as one of the frontrunners.

Essebsi is the head of the secular Nidaa Tounes party, which won October's general election, and he served for several years in the regime of Ben Ali.

Other contenders include incumbent Moncef Marzouki, who was installed as interim president at the end of 2011.

A rights activist who was exiled under Ben Ali, he formed an alliance with Ennahda in a power-sharing agreement that collapsed last year.

Several other Ben Ali-era officials are also running, including former central bank governor Mustapha Kamel Ennabli and ex-foreign minister Kamel Morjane.

The only woman candidate is long-time Ben Ali opponent and magistrate Kalthoum Kannou.