Officials Count Votes After Tunisia’s First Democratic Polls

Posted October 24th, 2011 at 6:00 am (UTC-5)
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Tunisian election officials are counting votes after the country held its first democratic elections following the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.

The official results are not expected until later Monday or Tuesday.

Voters were electing a 217-seat constituent assembly that will name an interim government and draw up a new constitution.

The country's independent electoral commission said more than 90 percent of Tunisia's 4.1 million registered voters cast ballots.

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.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the Tunisian people, and urged all those involved to remain committed to an inclusive and transparent transition process. A spokesman for Mr. Ban said Sunday the election is a significant development in the democratic transition of the region.

Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahdha party is widely expected to win at least a plurality of the vote. The party already is in talks to form a coalition. Ennahdha'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 Ennahdha 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, Ennahdha could reverse some of Tunisia's progressive legislation for women if it gains power.

Ennahdha's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, joined a long line 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.