Proud Tunisians vote in Arab Spring’s first election
Nine months after ushering in the Arab Spring, Tunisians have voted en masse in the nation’s first free election. But the mostly joyful occasion underscored the scale of the challenge the country’s newly elected representatives will face.
Tunisian voters took pride in writing a new chapter in the history of the Arab Spring Sunday as they flocked to the polls for the first free election in the nation’s history.
Some seven million voters were called upon to elect a constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution and setting elections for a new president and parliament.
Nine months after toppling their long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and inspiring similar uprisings across the Arab world, Tunisians were hoping a free and fair election would set a benchmark for democracy in the region.
Across the country, endless lines of eager voters could be seen snaking their way out of overcrowded polling stations.
After patiently queuing for hours in the sunshine, many emerged from the polls proudly holding up blue-stained index fingers as evidence that they had cast their ballot.
Among the voters was Manoubia Bouazizi, the mother of the fruit vendor whose self-immolation on December 17 set in motion the spectacular chain of events known as the Arab Spring. “I will vote in the interest of our country; we have worked hard, we don’t want to remain oppressed,” she told FRANCE 24.
Election officials said turnout was very high, with many polling stations staying open well after the 8pm deadline to allow the last voters to cast their ballots.
“There is tremendous enthusiasm,” said local journalist Ghassen Ben Khelifa, as he prepared to vote in the capital, Tunis. “Everyone has sensed the importance of the occasion.”
From one party to one hundred
In the wealthy Mediterranean city of Sousse, the hometown of Ben Ali, voters long accustomed to having but one party to choose from stared bemused at ballots bearing the names of 63 different candidates.
“We used to have no choice. But now there are so many parties we don’t know who to pick,” one confused voter told FRANCE 24.
Since the January uprising, Tunisia’s political landscape has been completely transformed, with Ben Ali’s hegemonic party giving way to a multitude of smaller groups.
On Sunday no fewer than 11,000 candidates were standing for election to the 217-seat assembly, most of them split among more than a hundred parties with the rest running as independents.
As polls closed, international monitors said the election had gone smoothly, with “no major irregularities” to report.
Frenchman Pierre Schapira, one of the 5,000 or so election observers deployed across the country, said he was particularly impressed with a text messaging system that helped voters locate the right polling station. “The atmosphere is amazing and the whole thing is remarkably well organised,” he told the FRANCE 24 Observers in Tunis.
Ennahda, a once outlawed and severely repressed Islamist party, was tipped to win around a third of the vote, giving it a key voice in drafting the new constitution.
But a complex system of proportional representation will ensure that no matter which way the vote goes no one party will be able to win a majority.
Some are relishing the uncertain outcome, determined not to let the inevitable anxiety spoil their party.
“For the first time in our lives we’ll go to bed not knowing who the winner is,” said freelance journalist Ben Khelifa.
Judging by the oganisers' latest announcement, he will have to wait until Tuesday for an official result.
The overwhelming sense of pride at holding the Arab Spring’s first free election was mingled with fierce determination to safeguard what many describe as the country’s “unfinished revolution”.
“The Arab Spring is born again today,” Ennahda leader Rachid Channouchi told reporters after casting his vote. “Not in the negative way of toppling dictators, but in the positive way of building a democratic system that represents the people.”
But in a sign of the tension between liberals and Islamists, Ghannouchi was booed as he left a polling station in a suburb of the capital, Tunis.
While Ennahda’s leaders have been at pains to highlight their democratic credentials, many of the more liberal parties are openly fearful of its intentions; not least concerning the country’s progressive policies on women’s rights.
Sunday’s vote was likely to see a record number of women elected to the new assembly – though far short of the 50% advocated by the commission in charge of organising the poll.
Bouazizi, who moved to Tunis following her son’s death, said she would cast her vote “to ensure women have dignity and are respected”.
But in her hometown of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia’s long-neglected interior, where her son Mohammed set himself alight in protest at the lack of jobs, most voters had other pressing issues on their minds.
“The people I spoke to here, many unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, say the revolution is yet to reach Sidi Bouzid,” said FRANCE 24’s correspondent Jonathan Walsh.
In nearby Kasserine, another poor town that bore the brunt of a deadly crackdown by Ben Ali’s security forces, many felt little had changed after nine months of interim governments led by ageing figures from the old regime.
El-Abed Guessoumil, a local student, said he would not be voting because “none of the parties are interested in us and our problems”.
The plight of inland towns such as Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, where unemployment is thought to hover at around 40%, underscores the scale of the challenge faced by the new constituent assembly.
But as Samy Ghorbal of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), one of the leading centrist formations, pointed out, “at least once the assembly is in place, there will be an obligation of result”.