21 December 2014
Last updated at 20:56
Beji Caid Essebsi, who leads a secularist party, has support in the wealthy, coastal regions
Tunisia’s Beji Caid Essebsi has claimed victory shortly after polls closed in the country’s first free presidential election.
His rival, caretaker President Moncef Marzouki, dismissed the claims however, saying “nothing is confirmed so far”.
Exit polls gave Mr Essebsi around 54% of the vote but official results are yet to be released.
Tunisia was the first country to depose its leader in the Arab Spring and inspired other uprisings in the region.
Mr Essebsi appeared on local television on Sunday, saying, “I dedicate my victory to the martyrs of Tunisia”, he said.
“I thank Marzouki, and now we should work together without excluding anyone,” he added.
However, a spokesman for Mr Marzouki said the claims were “without foundation”.
An exit poll by firm Sigma Conseil gave Mr Essebsi 55.5% of the vote. Other polling firms reportedly gave similar figures.
Mr Essebsi, who represents the secular-leaning Nidaa Tounes party, won the first round of voting last month with 39% of the vote.
Voter turnout had reached 36.8% after four and a half hours of voting, Tunisia’s election authority said.
Mr Essebsi, who turned 88 this week, held office under both deposed President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali and Tunisia’s first post-independence leader, Habib Bourguiba.
He is popular in the wealthy, coastal regions, and based his appeal to voters on stability and experience.
Moncef Marzouki is more popular in the south and interior of Tunisia
His opponent, Moncef Marzouki, is a 67-year-old human rights activists forced into exile by the Ben Ali government.
He has been interim president since 2011 and is more popular in the conservative, poorer south.
After casting his ballot, Mr Marzouki said Tunisians “should be proud” of themselves “because the interim period has come to a peaceful end”.
Voting ended at 17:00 GMT
Mr Marzouki was thought likely to attract support from the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which has played a key role in Tunisian politics since the Arab Spring but did not field a candidate.
Whoever wins faces restricted powers under a constitution passed earlier this year.
The president will be commander-in-chief of the armed forces but can appoint or sack senior officers only in consultation with the prime minister.
The president will also set foreign policy in consultation with the prime minister, represent the state and ratify treaties.
Tunisia boosted security for the elections and closed border posts with Libya, which has been plagued by unrest.
A group of at least three attackers targeted a polling station near the city of Kairouan on Sunday morning. Security forces say they killed one attacker and arrested three.