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Africa

Tunisians abroad rush to vote in first free election

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-10-20

Nine months after Tunisian protesters ushered in the Arab Spring, their compatriots abroad flocked to the polls on Thursday to cast their ballots in the country's first election since the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

AFP - Tunisians abroad thronged to vote Thursday in the first post-Arab Spring free election, three days before their compatriots at home go to the polls to turn the page on 23 years of autocratic rule.

Like many who voted on Thursday, historic opposition figure Kamel Jendoubi, who heads the overall election organising body ISIE, was tearful as he voted at a consulate in Paris.

"I dreamt of this day, I couldn't imagine but now I'm living it!" he said. "If we came here a few months ago, a few years ago, we'd simply be thrown out, it wasn't our house."

Expat Tunisians choose 18 of the 217 members of the constituent assembly, voting until Saturday in six "constituencies": two in France, one in Italy, one in Germany, one in North America and one for other Arab nations.

Tunisians living in former colonial ruler France will elect 10 of these 18 seats, in an assembly that will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Pollsters expect the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) to win most votes, stoking fears Tunisia may swap a secular dictatorship for a religious one, nine months after street protests toppled strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Almost a million Tunisians live abroad, with up to 500,000 in France alone.

About 500 people wearing thick coats against the autumn chill queued patiently outside the consulate at the Porte de Pantin on Paris' outskirts.

In Paris, a housewife who gave her name as Mrs Ben-Hassoun, 49, showed her index finger, stained dark green to show she had already voted, having queued for two hours to vote "for a good cause."

"This is the first time in my life. I'm very proud. I hope it leads to something good," she said.

Ahlem Laribi, 27, came to vote with her sister alongside many elderly Tunisians in the Mediterranean city of Marseille.

"It was useless to vote until now," she said. "We're going to try to change things... I've always lived in France, but today, I'm 200 percent proud to be Tunisian."

Dozens of Tunisians braved the rain in Rome to vote in a festive atmosphere.

"I'm 57 and I've never once voted," said Aziz Mohammed Hedi. "Since January 14 we're really free and these elections are the revolution's first fruit."

Sallouha Maslinski, one of around 60,000 Tunisians eligible to vote in Germany, cast her ballot at the embassy in Berlin.

"It's a bit difficult because all of this is new for us," said the 50-year-old, who has spent almost half her life in Germany, referring to the large choice of electoral lists.

There are around 1,500 lists to choose from in the vote under the proportional representation system, aimed at avoiding the dominance of any single party, as has been the case for the last 50 years.

In Cairo, where Egyptians inspired by the Tunisian revolt in February toppled their own strongman ruler Hosni Mubarak after over 30 years in power as the Arab Spring gathered momentum, some voters were overcome by emotion.

"The first voters were very emotional. We saw a young woman crying, her hands shaking. Tunisians feel free," said polling official Negib Boularef.

Votes cast abroad will be counted on Saturday and the results announced after voting ends in Tunisia itself on Sunday.

Turnout is the big unknown of the election, the first free vote after two decades of fallen strongman Ben Ali's rule during which the results of the rigged elections were always known well in advance.

Ben Ali, once backed by the West for his supposed role as a rampart against Islamisation, fled to Saudi Arabia a month into a leaderless uprising by Tunisians driven to the streets by social injustice, poverty and corruption.

The short transition period was marked by protests against the pace of change and sporadic violence across the country, which is under intense global scrutiny as the spearhead of the fast-spreading Arab Spring.

 

Date created : 2011-10-20

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