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'Arab Spring' enters next phase as Tunisians vote

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-10-23

Tunisian voters turned out on Sunday to elect members of a constitutional council in the country's first free elections, with the once-banned Islamist Ennahda party expected to win the most seats. Results of the vote are due on Monday.

AFP - Tunisians turned out in force for their first free elections Sunday, basking in pride in their status as democratic trail-blazers nine months after their toppling of a dictator sparked the Arab Spring.

While an Islamist party is predicted to win the most votes, it is not expected to win a majority but may instead seek to forge a coalition on a 217-member assembly tasked with drawing up a new constitution.

Hundreds of people queued before dawn outside polling stations in the capital and its suburbs, keen to take part in the contest after decades of autocratic rule.

"Tunisia today offers the world a bouquet of flowers of liberty and dignity," 62-year-old Houcine Khlifi told AFP while queueing at a central Tunis polling station.

"We break with the past and we come to life again. Thanks to the revolution that allowed us to end the tyranny," Khlifi said with tears in his eyes after casting his vote -- not having slept all night with excitement.

"Freedom was expensive, we have to pay our dues!" hotel employee Mondher Hamdi, 23, said before casting his ballot.

Some 7.2 million people are eligible to elect a constituent assembly that will rewrite the constitution and appoint a new caretaker government.

The Islamist Ennahda party, banned by the country's long-time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, is tipped to win the biggest bloc of votes.

Its leader Rached Ghannouchi, until recently in exile, arrived early with his family at a voting station in the El Manzah suburb and was stopped by fellow voters as he headed for the entrance.

"The queue, the queue! Democracy starts here," they objected, and Ghannouchi 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.

But on his departure, Ghannouchi was booed by voters calling him a "bastard", an AFP photographer witnessed.

Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi voted in La Soukra in the north of Tunis, describing the day as "historic without equal".

This is the first-ever open contest in a country where the outcome of elections used to be a foregone conclusion, and the first run by an independent electoral body after decades of ballot stuffing by the interior ministry under Ben Ali.

Under the father of independence Habib Bourguiba, elections were dispensed with as he declared himself president for life, while his successor Ben Ali won successive charade polls with scores as high as 99.91 percent in 1994.

After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, Ben Ali was ousted in January in a popular revolt against poverty, unemployment and corruption.

About 300 people were killed in the uprising that ousted Ben Ali and sparked region-wide revolts that claimed their latest Arab strongman Thursday with the killing of Moamer Kadhafi of Libya, which will declare its official "liberation" on the same day Tunisians cast their ballots.

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."

Michael Gaelher, head of the European Union observer mission, told AFP: "Up to now, it (the election) is very positive. The people are calm, happy, patient."

There had been some problems of a technical nature, he said, mainly with voters who had not taken part in a voluntary pre-poll registration process.

The multi-party body elected Sunday will have the loaded task of appointing an interim president and government for the duration of the constitution drafting process, expected to take about a year, in preparation for new elections.

The constituent assembly will have to decide what type of government the country will have and how to guarantee basic liberties, including women's rights which many fear Ennahda will seek to diminish despite its assurances to the contrary.

The progressive left remains divided with party leaders having failed to form a pre-vote alliance.

Ennahda, which claims to model itself on Turkey's moderate AKP party, had warned of a risk of vote rigging and vowed a fresh uprising if it detected fraud, but Ghannouchi stressed at a final rally Friday that the party would recognise the results "no matter Ennahda's score."

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 -- representing 80 political parties and several thousand independents.

Vote counting will start as soon as polling stations close at 7.00 pm (1800 GMT), with results updated live throughout the night.

The final tally will be released on Monday.

Date created : 2011-10-23


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