Tunisia counts votes after first Arab Spring election

TUNIS,  (Reuters) – Tunisian election officials  counted the votes today after the country’s first free  election, 10 months on from the moment Mohamed Bouazizi set  himself on fire in a protest that started the Arab Spring  uprisings.

People stand in line at a polling station as they wait to cast their vote in the Marsa district in Tunis yesterday. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Most forecasts point to a moderate Islamist party emerging  with the biggest share of the vote, an outcome that worries  secularists and could be replicated in other Arab states when  they hold their own post-Arab Spring elections.

Turnout in the vote, for an assembly which will sit for one  year and draft a new constitution, was more than 90 percent — a  mark of Tunisians’ determination to exercise their new  democratic rights after decades of repression.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Tunisia’s revolution in  January, which began with Bouazizi and ended with autocratic  President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing abroad, had “changed  the course of history.”

“Just as so many Tunisian citizens protested peacefully in  streets and squares to claim their rights, today they stood in  lines and cast their votes to determine their own future,” he  said in a statement issued by the White House.

The suicide of vegetable peddler Bouazizi, prompted by  despair over poverty and government harassment, provoked mass  protests which ended Ben Ali’s 23-year grip on power.
This in turn inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen,  Syria and Bahrain which have re-shaped the political landscape  of the Middle East and North Africa.

With an unexpectedly large number of ballot papers to count,  election officials said it was likely to be Monday or even later  before they have results to announce.

State radio reported that incomplete counts in two  provincial cities, Sfax and Kef, had the Islamist Ennahda party  in the lead. The Congress for the Republic, a leftist secular  party, was in second place in Sfax and Ettakatol, another  socialist group, was runner-up in Kef, the radio said.

Ennahda, citing its own, unofficial tally from votes cast by  the large Tunisian diaspora, said indications were that it had  done well. Overseas voting was held days before Sunday’s  election.

“Ennahda was first in all the foreign polling stations,” its  campaign manager, Abdelhamid Jlazzi, told a gathering of party  workers. “We got more than 50 percent.”

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

 CONTRADICTIONS       

The 217-seat assembly Tunisians are electing will, as well  as re-writing the constitution, choose a new interim government  and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections.

Western diplomats say Ennahda is unlikely to win a majority  of seats in the assembly in its own right, forcing it to make  alliances with secularist parties and therefore diluting its  influence.

Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in  exile in Britain, models his party on the moderate Islamist rule  of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

He says his party will respect women’s rights and not try to  enforce any personal morality code on Tunisians.

But the prospect of it winning a share of power still makes  some people feel uncomfortable in Tunisia. It has secular  traditions which go back to its first president after  independence from France. He called the hijab, or Islamic head  scarf, an “odious rag.”

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