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October 21, 2011

Tunisian Citizens Ready to Vote

by Lisa Bryant

Ten months after ousting longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians vote Sunday in their first democratic elections since independence. Tunisia's January revolution sparked the revolts now spreading across the Arab world.  Much is at stake, and the elections are being closely watched, because they could emerge as possible model for the region.

After decades of one-party rule, Tunisians now have plenty of choice. Thousands of candidates are running in Sunday's elections to select a so-called Constituent Assembly. The assembly is tasked to draw up a new constitution and chart a political roadmap for this North African country.

Political science professor Steven Ekovich of the American University of Paris has followed Tunisian politics for years. He says the vote is being closely watched, especially in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.

"The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and if it's going to have any success, that success will also start in Tunisia," said Ekovich.  "We know that if any country can do it, if any country can make a successful transition to democracy it will be Tunisia. And that will have enormous impact if it's successful, for example on Egypt. And Egypt is really the keystone to the Arab world."

Many Tunisians, like Waisi Adili, 34, are casting their vote for the first time.  Adili, who is unemployed, hopes the elections will usher in a political system that will bring human dignity and work.

Polls put Ennahdha as the clear frontrunner. The party that was banned under former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, is living up to its name, which means "Renaissance," in Arabic. Party spokeswoman Yusra Ghannouchi is the daughter of Ennahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi. He returned to Tunisia in January, after more than two decades in exile in England. She says her father's party is about politics, not religion.

"We take inspiration from the ethical values of Islam which we believe are universal values - freedom, dignity, equality," said Ghannouchi.  "Just like other parties might take inspiration from various liberal or leftist backgrounds. So religion is not something we believe the state will interfere in or impose, it is a matter of personal choice."

A British-educated doctoral student, the younger Ghannouchi says Ennahdha wants to preserve and develop the considerable rights of Tunisian women, who are considered the most emancipated in the Arab world.

"We have detailed in our program many policies that would advance women's rights further while stressing their right to education, to employment, to full equality including equal pay including combating all forms of violence against women," added Ghannouchi.

Ennahdha draws widespread support. At its last pre-election rally in the Tunis suburb of Ben Arous, women in headscarves mingled with some who were bare headed and wearing jeans.

Tunisia's recent political history has been orientated to the West. And many voters are eying a myriad of more secular, leftist parties - like the Modern Democratic Pole (PDM coalition).

Handing out flyers on the main Habib Bourguiba Avenue during the last day of campaigning, PDM candidate, Samir Taieb warns against mixing religion and politics.

Taieb says Ennahdha represents a danger, not only because of its religious bent, but because it had a hidden agenda. He warns it will roll back women's rights.

Women like university student Beya Ben Assin are also worried.  Assin fears that if Ennahdha gains power, it may curtail her ability to speak, dress and work as she chooses.

There are 217 seats up for grabs and observers say that Ennahdha is unlikely to capture the majority.  It is already in talks to form coalitions. And what many Tunisians say is most important is that finally their vote will count.