Huge Turnout in Tunisia’s First Democratic Polls

Posted October 23rd, 2011 at 7:40 pm (UTC-5)
Leave a comment

Tunisia held its first democratic elections Sunday, just months after a revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.

The country's independent electoral commission said more than 90 percent of Tunisia's 4.1 million registered voters cast ballots. The commission said many of the other 3.1 million voters who did not register in advance also were able to vote.

Citizens across the Arab nation expressed excitement and pride at the chance to choose among multiple political parties for the first time since independence in 1956. More than 100 parties fielded candidates. In previous votes, only ruling party members were allowed to run.

Voters were electing a 217-seat constituent assembly that will name an interim government and draw up a new constitution. Results are expected Monday or Tuesday.

Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda party is widely expected to win at least a plurality of the vote. The party already is in talks to form a coalition. Ennahda's leaders say they hope to establish a secular, pluralist democracy like that in Turkey, whose ruling AKP party also has an Islamic identity.

But Ennahda supporters are divided over how much regulation of personal morality the party should seek to impose. They said they hope Muslims would be free to adopt Islamic dress and pray without persecution, but that women should be able to reject the veil and that Tunisians could choose to buy alcohol.

Some voters expressed concern that despite its moderate public statements, Ennahda could reverse some of Tunisia's progressive legislation for women if it gains power.

Ennahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, joined a long queue with his family to vote Sunday in a suburb of the capital, Tunis. Ghannouchi spoke about the birth of democracy. But in a sign of the tensions between secular and religious Tunisians, some voters yelled at him to leave and called him a “terrorist.”

Polling stations were guarded by police and soldiers, and thousands of domestic and foreign observers and journalists were on hand to witness the election.

This was the first vote of the Arab Spring, a little more than nine months after Tunisians overthrew longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Tunisia, a country he said had “changed the course of history” and “inspired the world.”

The North African nation's revolution began last December when an unemployed university graduate set himself on fire after being driven to despair by police who confiscated his unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart.

Mohamed Bouaziz died of his injuries two weeks later, but the uprising he set in motion caused Mr. Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on January 14.