Obama hails ‘milestone’ Tunisia vote

The turnout for the parliamentary election stood at 60 percent

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Barack Obama hailed a milestone after Tunisians voted Sunday in an election seen as pivotal to establishing democracy, in what the U.S. president called a “historic political transition.”

Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, has been held up as a beacon of hope compared with other chaos-hit countries like Libya and Egypt, where regimes were also toppled.


Around the time polls closed, Al Arabiya reported on Sunday evening that turnout was 60 percent.

Tunisia’s uprising in 2011 sparked a series of protests that ousted several long-reigning Arab autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

While the small North African country did not go through the unrest its neighbours continue to suffer from, it did face similar tensions over Islamist versus more secular rule.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda and rival secular alliance Nidaa Tounes are favored to win most seats in Sunday’s vote, Reuters news agency reported.

However, several different parties are also participating in the race, ranging from conservative Islamist Salafists to Socialists, raising speculation that a coalition government is the probable outcome.

The 217-members voted into the assembly will choose a new prime minister.

Ennahda dominated Tunisia’s last post-uprising parliament but were later forced into a deal to step down following a crisis over their rule and the murder of two secular leaders.

Criticized for economic mismanagement and lax handling of hardline Islamists, Ennahda leaders say they learned from their mistakes in the early years after the revolution.

But Nidaa Tounes, which includes some former members of the Ben Ali regime, see themselves as modern technocrats able manage economic and security challenges after the messy period of Islamist-led rule.

“Ennahda are the only party we can rely on after the revolution, despite the mistakes they made,” said Hatem Kamessi, sports teacher attending an Ennahda rally in Tunis.

“After the first election, they didn’t have the experience,” he told Reuters.

Familar faces

Some of the secular parties are led by members of Ben Ali’s former regime who insist they were simply technocrats and were not tainted by the corruption and abuses associated with his regime.

Their return reflects the kind of compromise and consensus that has helped Tunisia avoid confrontations seen in Libya and Egypt where disagreements over the role of Islamists and former regime officials have erupted into violence.

That compromise and a proportional electoral system mean the two main players will seek deals with minor partners to form a majority in parliament and have a stronger say in forming the new government.

“In this context, the two biggest parties - Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes - will probably set aside their ideological differences and work together to form a national unity government,” Riccardo Fabiani at Eurasia Group said.

Jobs and economic growth

The new government will need to foster growth and jobs for the many Tunisians who feel left out of any economic benefits from the revolution. But they will also need to take on the tough austerity measures to cut public subsidies.

Tunisia expects growth of between 2.3 and 2.5 percent this year, but needs to continue slashing subsidies to trim the budget deficit and impose new taxes, the kind of reforms requested by international lenders.

Just as urgent is tackling the threat of hardline Islamist militants who have grown in influence after the fall of Ben Ali, including the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is branded a terrorist group by Washington.

Tunisian authorities had warned militants would seek to disrupt the elections. On Friday, Tunisian forces killed six people, including five women, after a standoff with an Islamist militant group on the outskirts of Tunis. The raid was the latest operation in Tunisia’s crackdown on militants.

[With AFP and Reuters]

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