Preliminary results from polling stations in Tunis yesterday suggest that Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, is poised to win the country’s first ever democratic election. The official results are expected later today.
In what Reuters describes as the ‘Arab Spring vote’, deemed free and fair by international observers, Tunisians will elect a 217-member assembly as well as an interim president. The assembly will draft a constitution, while the interim president will choose the new government. The government and assembly will sit for a year, until fresh elections planned for the start of 2013.
The BBC reports that more than 100 parties registered to take part in the elections which were closely monitored by international and local election observers.
Secretary General of the Electoral Commission Boubaker Bethabet said more than 90% of Tunisia’s registered 4.1 million citizens voted on Sunday. US President Obama praised the elections as an “important step forward.”
At the start of the year, Ennahda was forced to operate underground due to a government ban – and it had hundreds of advocates who were jailed for their support.
The party head, Rachid Ghannouchi, was harrassed by former President Ben Ali’s police and forced into exile in Britain for 22 years. Correspondents in Tunis describe him as a “soft-spoken scholar” whose politics are modelled on the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. He’s promised not to enforce a morality code on Tunisia or on its millions of annual visitors.
Party spokeswoman Yusra Ghannouchi told reporters: “Tunisians have voted in fact for those parties that have been consistently part of the struggle for democracy and opposed to Ben Ali’s dictatorship. At the forefront of those parties is Ennahda, and we believe that, as expected, it has achieved the greatest share of the vote.”
Ennahda has promosed a multi-party, secular democracy for Tunisia, rather than an Islamic state. To that end, the party has pledged to ally itself with two other secularist parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.
The Congress is headed by human rights activist Dr. Moncef Marzouki, who spent years exiled in France.
Ettakatol, a socialist party, is led by seasoned Ben Ali opponent Dr. Mustafar Ben Jaafar.
Reuters correspondent Christian Lowe, who has been following the party’s rise, adds:
In a slick and well-funded campaign, the party tapped into a desire among ordinary Tunisians to be able to express their faith freely after years of aggressively enforced secularism.
It also sought to show it could represent all Tunisians, including the large number who take a laissez-faire view of Islam’s structures, drink alcohol, wear revealing clothes and rarely visit the mosque.
The party’s final election rally last week was addressed by one of Ennahda’s candidates, a glamorous woman who does not wear a hijab.
On the fringes of the same rally, stalls sold books by Salafist authors, followers of a strict interpretation of Islam who believe women should be covered up and that the sexes should be segregated in public.