Tunisians to vote in historic post-revolution polls

AFP , Monday 17 Oct 2011

Tunisia, the country having launched the "Arab Spring" takes the lead with a historic vote next Sunday for the drafters of a new constitution, but polls show voter turnout is expected to be low

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Demonstrators hold a Tunisian flag during a pro-democracy rally in Tunis, Sunday (Photo: AP)

"It is a historic turning point. Tunisians do not have the right to make mistakes, the world is watching this first test on the road to democracy," a European diplomat said, amid an election campaign dotted with violent outbursts, some by Islamists.

Ten months ago, Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi from Sidi Bouzid, a neglected town in the west of the country, set himself on fire to protest abuses under the 23-year-old regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

He died days later, but Bouazizi's action sparked Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution and region-wide revolts that have toppled leaders in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli, and still threaten others.

Ben Ali, once backed by the West for his supposed role as a rampart against Islamisation, fled to Saudi Arabia a month into the leaderless uprising by Tunisians driven to the streets by social injustice, poverty and corruption.

Now, after a short transition period marked by protest against the pace of change and sporadic fits of violence, Tunisians will on Sunday have a chance to take charge of their destiny in the Arab world's first post-revolution vote.

Despite the high stakes, however, voter interest is low in a complex electoral landscape: some 7.3 million potential balloters will elect 217 members of an assembly that will write the country's new founding law, from more than 10,000 candidates.

Voters in the country of about 12 million people are faced with over 1,400 candidates’ lists: 787 belonging to political parties, 583 to independent candidates and 50 to party coalitions.

Most of the groupings propagate similar slogans of liberty, democracy and social justice. Half the candidates are women.

The new constitution will be the country's third after those of 1861 and 1959, and will map out a new path by determining the type of government to take over a hitherto staunchly secular state.

The assembly will also choose an interim president who will appoint a prime minister and a government for the duration of the constitution drafting process leading up to new national elections.

Sunday's polls will be run by the ISIE, an independent poll body based in the interior ministry that is widely blamed for ballot stuffing since Tunisian independence in 1956.

While the Islamic Ennahda (Renaisssance) party is polled to take the biggest block of votes in the Muslim majority country, the election system has been designed to include as many parties as possible in the constitution drafting process, to the benefit of smaller groups with fewer resources.

The votes cast in 33 constituencies will determine the number of seats allotted to each party. If votes are left over that are insufficient to give a party a full seat, these will be carried over to the next biggest party.

Ennahda, which had been banned under Ben Ali, has run a campaign vowing to build a democracy based on Islamic values, which it has said would include protecting women.

The party has denied involvement in an attack Friday night by Salafist conservatives on a television director's house after the broadcast of a film deemed offensive to Muslims, while at the same time denouncing the "provocation".

With more than 100 registered political parties, a handful stands out as strong contenders.

The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), whose leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, was a vehement Ben Ali critic, has positioned itself as the main alternative to Ennahda and is polled as the second biggest party.

On the left of the political spectrum, the Ettajid former communist party gathers five smaller groupings opposed to Islamisation of the state, while the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (POCT) led by Hamma Hammami, is one of the few parties to have put a woman at the head of an electoral list.

There are about 40 small parties seen as heirs to Ben Ali's now dissolved Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), which still has many bureaucrats in the system.

The large number of independent candidates in the poll has been interpreted by analysts as a sign of distrust in political parties like Ennahda, suspected by many of wanting to pick the fruits of a revolution they were not part of.

Opinion polls have suggested that a majority of Tunisians had no idea who they would vote for.

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