First free election in Tunisia this weekend

Posted Oct. 23, 2011, at 9:41 p.m.

TUNIS, Tunisia — Voting lines wrapped around street corners on Sunday and parents brought children to witness the milestone, the first truly free vote in Tunisia’s history and the first election of the Arab Spring, which began in this small North African nation and sent shock waves through the region.

There were few reports of fraud or violence, and election officials said turnout was higher than expected, with an estimated 7 million of 10.4 million eligible voters casting ballots by late afternoon. Tunisian officials said they would probably release preliminary results Monday or Tuesday.

For Tunisians, it was an opportunity to have their say in the political rebirth of their country after the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January. But the vote was also closely watched in other Arab countries that are stepping toward democracy after decades of dictatorial rule. Egypt is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in a month, the first since the ouster of Pr esident Hosni Mubarak, and, with the declaration of the formal end of the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, Libyans are expected to go to the polls in eight months.

“Whatever the outcome is, it is our decision, it is not imposed on us,” said Ismail Trabelsi, 42, an environmental engineer who went to vote in the middle-class neighborhood of al-Aouina at 7 a.m. He waited in line for more than an hour to cast his ballot in a school, one of more than 4,000 polling stations. “We’ve waited 55 years for this moment,” he said.

Residents of the capital brimmed with joy and pride as they marked their choices on a large paper ballot that contained the name of each party as well as symbols representing them, for those who can’t read. Voters dropped the ballots in plastic bins, dipped their fingers in blue ink, and, as they walked away, often looked giddy.

More than 14,000 international and domestic observers were on hand to watch for election law violations. There were also visitors from Libya, which faces the difficult task of building a democracy in a country long dominated by one man.

“It’s going to be hard,” said Salwa Boughaghis, an activist and lawyer from Benghazi who played a key role in the early days of the Libyan revolution. “What’s happening here is amazing,” she said.

The votes cast Sunday will elect the country’s National Constituent Assembly, a body of 217 representatives who will draft a new constitution and appoint an interim government. With dozens of parties running, none were expected to receive a majority of votes, although the once-banned Ennahdha movement, which formed a moderate Islamist party, was expected to take the most votes.

Election rules forbid parties from campaigning on election day, and officials said they would prosecute violations. The country’s new independent electoral commission also warned parties against putting pressure on voters.

Overall, the elections appeared to be a success, officials said.

“Revolts spread from Tunisia to Wall Street, and now democracy will spread from Tunisia to the world,” said Thameu Jaoua, 46, a civil engineer who had never cast a ballot before Sunday.

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