Large turnout in Tunisia’s Arab Spring election

TUNIS: Tunisian voters poured into a polling stations to vote on Sunday in their country’s first free election, 10 months after a vegetable seller set fire to himself in an act of protest that started the Arab Spring uprisings.

The leader of an Islamist party predicted to win the biggest share of the vote was heckled outside a polling station by people shouting “terrorist” — highlighting tensions between Islamists and secularists that are also being felt in other countries touched by the Arab Spring.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, prompted by his despair at poverty and government repression, provoked mass protests which forced President Zine Al-Abidine to flee Tunisia. This in turn inspired revolts in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderately Islamist Ennahda party, took his place in the queue outside a polling station in the El Menzah 6 district of the capital.

“This is an historic day,” he said, accompanied by his wife and daughter, who were both wearing hijabs, or Islamic headscarves. “Tunisia was born today. The Arab Spring was born today.”

But as he emerged from the polling station, about a dozen people shouted at him: “Degage” French for “Go away” and “You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!”

Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain, has associated his party with the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. He has said he will not try to impose Muslim values on society.

But the party’s rise is worrying Tunisia’s secularists who believe their country’s liberal, modernist traditions are now under threat.

Across Tunisia, queues stretching hundreds of meters formed outside polling stations from early in the morning.

This level of voter interest was never seen during Ben Ali’s rule, when only a trickle of people turned out for elections because they knew the result was predetermined.

“This is the first time I have voted,” said Karima Ben Salem, 45, at a polling station in the Lafayette area of central Tunis.

“I’ve asked the boys to make their own lunch. I don’t care … Today I am not on duty. Or rather, I am on duty for my country,” she said.

Sunday’s vote is for an assembly that will draft a new constitution to replace the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new president and parliament.

Most forecasts are that Ennahda will not have enough seats for a majority in the assembly, forcing it to seek a coalition which will dilute the Islamist influence.

The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which is leading the challenge to Ennahda dominance, has campaigned on a platform of protecting Tunisia’s secular values.

Najib Chebbi, a former anti-Ben Ali dissident and PDP leader, stood in the queue outside a polling station in the Al Marsa district, chatting to other voters.

“I will wait my turn, even if it takes all day. That is democracy,” he told Reuters. “This is Tunisia’s happiest day. It is a celebration for democracy. Today Tunisia has joined the ranks of the advanced countries.

“It is very moving to see all these people who are waiting their turn to vote,” he said.

 

Contradictions

Ennahda has been at pains to assuage the concerns of secularists and Western powers, fielding several women candidates including one who does not wear the hijab and promising not to undermine women’s freedoms.

But fundamentalist Salafist Islamists have attacked a cinema and a TV station in recent months over artistic material deemed blasphemous. Ennahda says they have nothing to do with them, but liberals do not believe them.

Observers says Ennahda’s long-term intentions are not clear. Its election campaign has avoided offering policy details that mark it out as much different from its rivals.

At a final election rally on Friday, Suad Abdel-Rahim, the female candidate who does not wear a veil, said Ennahda would protect women’s equality.

But illustrating the party’s contradictions, many books on sale on the fringes of the rally were by Salafist writers who believe women should be segregated from men in public and that elections are un-Islamic.

An Ennahda victory would be the first such success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 election in Algeria, Tunisia’s neighbor. The army annulled the result, provoking years of conflict.

Ennahda’s fortunes could have a bearing on Egyptian elections set for next month in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological ally, also hopes to emerge strongest.

Libya hopes to hold elections next year after a protest movement that transformed into an armed rebellion managed, with NATO backing, to oust Muammar Qaddafi. Unresolved violent conflict continues in Syria and Yemen, and many other governments have begun reforms to avoid civil unrest.

With so much at stake in Tunisia, there are concerns that even the smallest doubt over the legitimacy of the vote could bring supporters of rival parties onto the streets.

The government says 40,000 police and soldiers are being deployed to prevent any protests escalating into violence. Shopkeepers say people have been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case unrest disrupts supplies.

(arabnews.com / 23.10.2011)

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