In a positive vote which saw 90 per cent of registered voters participating, Tunisians in their first ever free elections since the end of French colonial rule appear to have given the moderate Islamist Ennahda party a head start followed by secularists who are willing to participate in a broad-based coalition.

As results begin to trickle in slowly, mainly on account of heavier- than- expected turnout, Tunisian voters appear to have rejected those espousing hard-nosed western-oriented secularism. Tunisia’s election commission head, Kamel Jendoubi said official results would be released Tuesday afternoon.

"These elections are as much about future governance as our identity. We are the inheritors of the civilization of Carthage, but in the modern age, who are we? Are we European style secularists, Muslim traditionalists with a strong Arab reference or a blend of all these tendencies," asks Youssef Gaigi, the founder of TunisiaLive, a popular news and features website. Not expecting any single party to record a landslide win, mainly on account of Tunisia’s complicated system of proportional representation, Mr. Gaigi hopes that a national unity government will emerge out of the elections. "The Ennahda will be strong on issues such as human rights because their activists were long abused in prison by Tunisia’s former rulers. But there are other parties, which on account of their European exposure will have the experience to bring in new technology, or better handle difficult foreign policy issues."

Tunisian radio announced that Ennahda was in the lead in the northern town of Beja, followed by the center-left Congress for the Republic Party (CRP) in the second place. "The results are very good for Ennahda. We don't want to give details but it's clear that Ennahda has enjoyed a level of success that in some cases equals the results of the voting abroad," Reuters quoted a party official as saying. In the votes cast abroad by the Tunisian diaspora, Ennahda has polled more than 50 per of the vote, party officials claim.

Early results show that the established secular parties, which have refused to tag with Ennahda in a possible future coalition, have so far performed poorly. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which prides itself as the traditional defender of the country’s secular values is trailing in the third or fourth position in many districts where counting is underway. But the two other Left-oriented parties, CRP and Ettakatol, which have been open to political compromise with Ennahda, are faring surprisingly well. Samir bin Omar of the CRP, said citing poll trends that his party was hopeful of standing second to Ennahda after a national count was over.

More than 14,000 local and international observers are monitoring the polls which will elect a 217 member assembly. The elected representatives will choose an interim government, write a new constitution and prepare for fresh parliamentary and presidential polls. Tunisia is the first country to hold, what might become precedent-setting elections in the region following the Arab Spring, a scorching pro-democracy movement which has already toppled entrenched regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Sensing that Tunisians were inclined towards moderation, the Ennahda has strongly emphasised the need for having a strong Muslim and Arab identity, which in its view, does not contradict its support for secular values and individual rights. Suad Abdel-Rahim, an Ennahda candidate who has campaigned in chic western attire maintains that she favours full protection of women’s rights. "I am not a feminist in the traditional western sense but I believe in equal rights for women grounded in an Arab and Muslim identity and discourse." She acknowledges that Ennahda leader, Rachid Ghannouchi has been long associated with moderate Islamists in Turkey. However, her party wished to establish a unique "Tunisian model" of democracy in her country, despite Ennahda’s familiarity with the "Turkish model", and a moderate new-age Islam, which had begun to flourish in several countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

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