Tunis: Tunisians formed snaking queues to vote in their first free election Sunday, basking in their status as democratic trail-blazers nine months after ousting a dictator and giving birth to the Arab Spring.
The Islamist Ennahda party was predicted to win the most votes but fall short of a majority in a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution and appoint a president to form a caretaker government.
Photo by AP
Long lines of people formed at polling stations before dawn, growing into winding queues of voters keen to take part in the country’s first electoral contest without a pre-determined result after decades of autocratic rule.
“The turnout of Tunisians exceeded all expectations,” elections chief Kamel Jendoubi told journalists five hours into voting, adding the final rate “may exceed 60 %”.
Voter Houcine Khlifi, 62, had tears in his eyes as he spoke of finally casting his ballot after spending a sleepless night in excited anticipation.
“Tunisia today offers the world a bouquet of flowers of liberty and dignity,” he told AFP at a central Tunis polling station.
“On this day, I vote in memory of my husband who gave his life for our dear country, our liberty,” 63-year-old Rbiaa Dalhoumi said through her tears after voting in the western town of Kasserine, which bore the heaviest brunt of the government’s brutal crackdown on the revolution that ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Some 7.2 million people are eligible to vote for a new constituent assembly in 12 hours of polling that started at 11:30 am.
The assembly will decide what system of government the country will have and how to guarantee basic liberties, including women’s rights which many fear Ennahda would seek to diminish despite its assurances to the contrary.
Ennahda claims to model itself on the ruling AKP party in Turkey, another Muslim-majority country which like Tunisia to date has a secular state, but is accused by some of preaching modernism in public and radicalism in the mosques.
Tunisia’s progressive left remains divided before Ennahda, however, with party leaders having failed to form a pre-vote alliance.
Banned under Ben Ali, Ennahda is likely to seek a coalition with smaller parties for a larger say on the assembly, which will also have the authority to write laws and pass budgets.
But in a sign of the tension between Islamists and secularists, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was heckled after voting in a Tunis suburb, with queuing voters shouting “degage (leave)!” while calling him a “bastard” and a “terrorist”.
Until recently in exile, Ghannouchi was stopped by fellow voters as he headed for the entrance upon arrival at the voting station in Tunis’ El Manzah.
“The queue, the queue! Democracy starts here,” they objected, and the party leader made his way to the back of the line more than a kilometre (half a mile) long.
“This turnout demonstrates the people’s thirst for democracy,” he said with a smile.
The electoral system was designed to include as many parties as possible, a scenario that may lead to a divided assembly and complicate its work of constitution drafting ahead of fresh national elections.
In a pre-emptive bid to prevent the assembly overstaying its welcome, the 11 biggest parties out of 80 contesting the polls signed a document in September declaring that its mandate should not exceed a year.
Sunday’s vote is the first run by an independent electoral body after decades of ballot stuffing by the interior ministry.
Jendoubi lamented that some political parties broke a blanket campaign ban that entered into force on Saturday, allegedly sending mobile phone messages in a bid to influence voters.
Michael Gahler, head of the European Union observer mission, told AFP: “Up to now, it (the election) is very positive. The people are calm, happy, patient.”
The European Union hailed Tunisia’s elections and vowed support for the new authorities, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “As the first country in the region to put democracy to the test at the polling booth, Tunisia is once again leading the way.”
Ben Ali was ousted in January after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, in a popular uprising that sparked region-wide uprisings which claimed their latest Arab strongman Thursday with the killing of Moamer Kadhafi of Libya.
In polls witnessed by some 40,000 security force members and 13,000 observers, Tunisians can choose from more than 11,000 candidates - half of them women by law - and many of them independents.
Vote counting will start as soon as polling stations close at 11:30 pm, with results updated throughout the night.
The final tally is to be released on Monday.
The current, interim government will remain in power until the assembly appoints a new president, not expected before 9 November.