Tunisians voted in droves in the first election in the region after the dawn of the Arab Spring, spawning contrasting images with neighbouring Libya where a climate of fear and uncertainty has gripped the country following the brutal killing of former leader Muammar Qadhafi.
Soon after first light, Tunisians in large numbers began to form orderly queues outside polling stations, their exuberance to vote in their first genuine elections since 1956 when the country was liberated from French colonial rule, blending with a steely determination to establish a democracy on strong and stable foundations. “If for some reason this chance of establishing democracy is stolen from us, we will be back on the streets,” said, Eyeman Mabruka, a private sector employee, outside a polling station.
Sunday's elections are being held nine months after a popular uprising toppled former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisians will elect 217 members to an Assembly that will write a new Constitution, install an interim executive, which will stay in office till a fresh round of presidential and parliamentary elections are held.
As they headed for the polls, many Tunisian voters expressed awareness that their example will resonate powerfully in the region, where peaceful pro-democracy uprisings have been interrupted by a spiral of violence, especially in Libya and Yemen. “We hope that peaceful elections in Tunisia will once again encourage change in the region through non-violence” says Youssef Gaigi, a founder member of TunisiaLive, a popular news website.
As Tunisia's joyous voters emerged from polling stations, many flashing victory signs and pointing to the blue voters ink on their fingertips, they had already joined issue with the main theme of the poll: Can moderation and political Islam co-exist?
Frontrunner Ennahda party led by moderate Islamist Rached Ghannouchi, echoing the theme prominently espoused since 2002 by Turkey's Justice and Development Party, has stressed that democracy, Islam and secularism can comfortably cohabit. But under Tunisia's complex proportional system, Ennahda is unlikely to emerge as a clear cut winner.
The strongly secular Democratic Modernist Pole (PDM) has rejected the possibility of joining Ennahda in case election results demand the formation of a coalition government.
However, Mr. Ghannouchi is hopeful that his party can work with some of the other contesting parties, which include among others, the secularist Ettakatol, the Congress for the Republic, and the centre-left Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).