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Updated: October 22, 2011 23:51 IST

Tunisia votes on Sunday in the first Arab Spring polls

Atul Aneja
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Ennahida, an Islamist party, at pole position

Nine months after the end of the dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali following a popular uprising, Tunisians will head for polling stations on Sunday for an election that is likely to influence the political transition of countries that experienced the Arab Spring.

The election is expected to lay the foundations of democracy in Tunisia, getting rid of an oligarchic system under Mr. Ben Ali, which undergirded the existence of a vicious police-state. The polls will lead to the formation of a Constituent Assembly, which will draft a new Constitution, select a temporary executive and hold presidential and parliamentary elections, probably within a time frame of one year.

During the run-up to the election, the initiative has been seized by the Ennahda party, which, on the footsteps of Turkey's AK Party, seeks to find compatibility between democracy, secularism and Islam. The rest of the parties, of centre-left , liberal and right-wing persuasions have mainly reacted to Ennahda's slick campaign, raising fears that the Islamist party, if elected in large enough numbers would pose a threat to civil liberties, secularism and women's rights.

The faultlines among the contesting parties were evident during Friday's high-profile rallies which ended the political campaign, paving the way to Sunday's polls. In his final burst to persuade voters, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi repeated his campaign template that his party was an ally and not a threat to liberal values, notwithstanding its receptivity to a new-age Islam in the cultural sphere. “The Ennahda supporter is moderate and peaceful, Muslim and contemporary. He wants to live in this age but wants to live with dignity and as a Muslim in this life.” Thousands of his energetic supporters who had assembled at a sports-stadium in a modest Tunis suburb interspersed their applause with the trademark slogan: “The people want renaissance again.” Rebutting forcefully the charge that Ennahda, which means “renaissance”, was opposed to gender equality, Mr. Ghannouchi asserted: “They said Islam is the enemy of democracy, women, arts and creativity, but we will increase women's rights. Tunisia is safe in your hands; you are the protectors of the revolution.” To stress that women will play a major role in Tunisia's democratic transition, the party fielded a high profile woman activist during its final rally. Addressing the crowds, Suad Abdel-Rahim, who is contesting on the Ennahda ticket, said her party “isn't just a political party, it's the renewal of Tunisia via this party”.

Among Ennahda's prominent rivals, the centre-left Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), in its final rally, held inside a packed hall, urged crowds to exercise caution while exercising their vote.

“We are sure Tunisians will vote for moderation, not for extremism,” said secretary-general Maya Jribi. “Tunisia needs to protect the torch of moderation. My call to women is to vote to save their gains from the risks posted by extremism.” With an eye on wooing the Tunisian youth, the party had ringed in a DJ on stage who played popular songs.

Other prominent parties contesting in the elections include the secularist Ettakatol, led by Mustafa Ben Jaafar. The Congress for the Republic, led by Moncef Marzouki, who was earlier forced into exile in France, is also a significant contender in the polls.

Analysts point out that it is likely that none of the contesting parties will end up with a clear majority, mainly on account of a complex system of proportional representation that governs the polls.

Already, the major political parties are jockeying for the formation of a durable coalition that will steer the transition. Mr. Ghannouchi has said the election rules that had been framed were “unfair.”

However, he had accepted them because Tunisia, during its present stage of transition, would benefit from a broad coalition government.

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