Islamists head for win in Tunisia’s Arab Spring vote

TUNIS, (Reuters) – Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party  yesterday claimed a thumping victory in the country’s first  election, sending a message to the region that once-banned  Islamists are challenging for power after the “Arab Spring”.

Rachid Ghannouchi

With election officials still counting ballots from Sunday’s  vote — the first to follow as a result of the uprisings which  began in Tunisia and spread through the region — the Ennahda  party said its own tally showed it had won. Several of its  biggest rivals conceded defeat.

Seeking to reassure secularists in Tunisia and elsewhere who  see a threat to liberal values in the region, party officials  said they would share power and would not try to push through  radical measures.

“There will be no rupture. There will be continuity because  we came to power via democracy, not through tanks,” campaign  manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi said at party headquarters.

“We suffered from dictatorship and repression and now is an  historic opportunity to savour the taste of freedom and  democracy,” he said.

Shortly before he spoke, an Ennahda female candidate who  does not wear the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, sang along to  Lebanese and Tunisian pop songs on a stage. The party says her  inclusion is proof of its moderate outlook.
In the only hint of trouble so far in the election, about  400 people protested outside the election commission building,  alleging that Ennahda, led by the long exiled Rachid Ghannouchi,  was guilty of vote fraud.  The protesters, encircled by police, carried banners saying:  “What democracy?” and “Shame on you, Ghannouchi!”  Election officials say there were only minor violations and  Western monitors applauded the election.

Ennahda, citing its own figures, said the election gave it  40 percent of the seats in the assembly which will draft a new  constitution, appoint an interim government and set a date for  new elections late next year or early in 2013.

That tally, if confirmed by the election commission counting  the votes, would still require the party to form alliances with  secularist parties if it is to have a majority. That is expected  to dilute its influence.

The victory was the first in the Arab world for an Islamist  party since Hamas won a 2006 election in the Palestinian  Territories. The election result is likely to resonate in Egypt, which  starts voting in November in a multi-stage election. An Islamist  party which shares much of the same ideology as Ennahda is  predicted to perform strongly.

Tunisia became the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” when  Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in a provincial town, set  fire to himself in protest at poverty and government repression.

His suicide provoked a wave of protests which forced  autocratic President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi  Arabia in January.

The revolution in Tunisia, a former French colony, in turn  inspired uprisings which forced out entrenched leaders in Egypt  and Libya, and convulsed Yemen and Syria — re-shaping the  political landscape of the Middle East.

Only a trickle of official results has so far appeared —  unlike votes under Ben Ali when the outcome was announced  straight away, probably because it had been pre-determined.

Ennahda won half of the 18 seats allocated to Tunisians  abroad. Of the four electoral districts inside Tunisia that have  so far declared, it led the field in two and was joint winner in  the other two, officials said late on Tuesday.

TURKISH MODEL

Ennahda’s leader Ghannouchi was forced into exile in Britain  for 22 years because of harassment by Ben Ali’s police. A  soft-spoken scholar, he dresses in suits and open-necked shirts  while his wife and daughter wear the hijab.
Ghannouchi is at pains to stress his party will not enforce  any code of morality on Tunisian society, or the millions of  Western tourists who holiday on its Mediterranean beaches. He  models his approach on the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime  Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

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