Turnout exceeded 90 percent in Tunisia’s first free election, a senior official in the independent commission organizing the vote said, 10 months after the surprise toppling of strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolt that sparked the Arab Spring with an Islamic party poised to win.
“Out of the 4.1 million people registered, more than 90 percent voted,” said Boubaker Ben Thaber, Secretary-General of the commission. He said that many people who had not registered in advance had also been able to vote.
In some areas where polling booths had shut, people were still waiting to vote. Election officers in the conservative district of Ettadamen in Tunis said some 300 people still queuing would be allowed to cast votes.
“Everyone who is inside will be allowed vote, even if it takes us to midnight,” an officer said.
Three hours before the polls closed, Kamel Jendoubi, head of the electoral commission, said turnout was “over 60 percent and close to 70 percent.”
“The turnout of Tunisians exceeded all expectations,” Jendoubi told a press conference in Tunis five hours into polling.
He told reporters there was some “soft” intimidation of voters, such as street demonstrations and people continuing to campaign on voting day, which is against the rules. He said some parties had received warnings.
According to Reuters, the leader of an Islamist party predicted to win the biggest share of the vote was heckled outside a polling station by people shouting “terrorist,” highlighting tensions between Islamists and secularists being felt across the Arab world.
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderately Islamist Ennahda party, took his place in the queue outside a polling station in the El Menzah 6 district of the capital.
“This is an historic day,” he said, aaccompanied by his wife and daughter, both wearing Islamic headscarves, or hijabs. “Tunisia was born today. The Arab Spring was born today.”
As he emerged from the polling station, about a dozen people shouted at him: “Degage”, French for “Go away”, and “You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!”
Some 7.2 million people are eligible to elect a 217-member assembly that will write a new constitution after decades of autocratic government under Ben Ali.
Sunday’s vote is for an assembly which will draft a new constitution to replace the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. The multi-party body will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new president and parliament.
The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation last December set off the Tunisian revolt, said the elections were a victory for dignity and freedom.
“Now I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice,” Manoubia Bouazizi told Reuters. “I’m an optimist, I wish success for my country.”
The Islamic Ennahda party, banned under Ben Ali, is polled to win the biggest bloc of votes in this first-ever open contest in a country where the outcome of elections used to be a foregone conclusion.
But the Islamist party will probably not win enough to give it a majority in the assembly and will seek to lead a coalition.
Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain, has associated his party with the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. He has said he will not try to impose Muslim values on society.
The North African country’s elite fear the rise of Ennahda puts their secular values under threat. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) has centered its campaign on stopping the Islamists, vowing to seek alliances to keep it out of power.
Ennahda has been at pains to assuage the concerns of secularists and Western powers, fielding several women candidates including one who does not wear the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, and promising not to undermine women’s freedoms.
Tunisia was a pioneer of secular modernization among Arab and Muslim countries in the post-colonial period, banning polygamy, equalizing inheritance rights, giving women the right to vote and discouraging the veil.
Fundamentalist Islamists known as Salafists have attacked a cinema and a TV station in recent months over artistic material deemed blasphemous. Ennahda says they have nothing to do with them, but liberals do not believe them.
Observers say Ennahda’s intentions are not clear. Its election campaign has scrupulously avoided offering policy details that mark it out as much different from its rivals.
At a final election rally on Friday, Suad Abdel-Rahim, the female candidate who does not wear a veil, said Ennahda would protect women’s gains.
But illustrating the party’s contradictions, many of the books on sale on the fringes of the rally were by Salafist writers who believe women should be segregated from men in public and that elections are un-Islamic.
“Arab Spring” repercussions
An Ennahda victory would be the first such success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 Algerian election the army annulled, provoking years of bloody conflict.
Ennahda’s fortunes could bear on Egyptian elections set for next month in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological ally, also hopes to emerge strongest.
Libya hopes to hold elections next year after a protest movement that transformed into an armed rebellion with NATO backing managed to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Unresolved violent conflict continues in Syria and Yemen, and many other governments have begun reforms to avoid civil unrest.
Unlike its neighbor, which descended into civil war, Tunisia’s path to democracy has been mostly peaceful apart from some protests against the pace of transformation and sporadic violent outbursts by conservative Islamists against secularization.
Elections chief Kamel Jendoubi on Saturday declared his ISIE polling commission “ready and confident”, while the European Union observer mission said there was “almost no chance of cheating or falsifying results”.
With so much at stake, there are concerns that even the smallest doubt over the legitimacy of the Tunisian vote could bring supporters of rival parties onto the streets.
Ennahda’s leader, Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi, riled opponents this week when he described the party as Tunisia’s biggest and warned that the Tunisian people would start a new uprising if they suspected any poll rigging.
Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi said in a televised address on Thursday that Tunisians should vote without fear of violence or cheating, a feature of Ben Ali’s police state.
The government says 40,000 police and soldiers are being deployed to prevent any protests escalating into violence. Shopkeepers say people have been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case unrest disrupts supplies.
In what is widely regarded as the Arab Spring's first democratic test, Tunisians can choose from more than 11,000 candidates -- half of them women –representing 80 political parties and several thousand independents.
The final tally will be now be released on Tuesday and not Monday as was earlier expected.