TUNIS, Tunisia — Citizens streamed to the polls on Sunday, lining up for hours to cast ballots in the a vote that looked poised to be a groundbreaking step toward democracy in a tumultuous region struggling to shake off decades of dictatorship.
The moderate Islamist Nahda Party was widely expected to cruise to victory, but fall short of an outright majority in a 217-seat Constituent Assembly, which is responsible for appointing an interim government, determining what sort of government will rule the country and drafting a new constitution.
More than who wins or loses, Tunisia’s vote is being scrutinized and celebrated as a measure of the country’s infant democracy. A free and fair election would mark a sharp break from the beaten path in the Middle East, where elections have long been mostly sham contests with predictable results.
It is the first vote in the Middle East since Tunisians launched a monthlong uprising that culminated on Jan. 14, when ex-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to exile.
Successive uprisings erupted in countries throughout the region, in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, where democracy activists and opposition leaders were watching Tunisia’s election Sunday and were hopeful it would galvanize their own democratization efforts.
Munther Saqaa, a 67-year-old petroleum engineer, voted for the first time in a Tunisian election since 1994. In that vote, Mr. Ben Ali’s internal security agents reviewed each ballot after voters slipped it into transparent envelopes and those who didn’t vote for Mr. Ben Ali were arrested, he said.
The contrast with Sunday’s election couldn’t be more dramatic. The vote was tentatively declared a resounding success by Tunisia’s political leaders, the election commission overseeing the vote and independent observers.
Kamel Jandoubi, head of the country’s independent election commission, known by its French acronym ISIE, said at a news conference that with three hours still to go until the close of 12-hour polling period, turnout was averaging close to 70% and exceeded 80% in some districts, of Tunisia’s 4.4 million registered voters.
Throughout the country of about 10 million people, 7.5 million had the right to vote, but not all registered to do so, though a late amendment to the election law allowed unregistered voters to still cast ballots.
Mr. Jandoubi said officials had received complaints of somewhere between a few hundred to a few thousand voters who failed to find their names on election lists, in addition to a handful of other violations. Still, he said, “This is a celebration of the Tunisian revolution.”
Said Ferjani, a members of the Islamist Nahda Party’s politburo, said, “So far, so good. We are really happy about what’s going on everywhere. Today we begin to build a new Tunisia.”
An election monitor with the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based organization that supports democracy around the world, said reports from around the country reflected a smooth election.
Seasoned election observers, however, said they were withholding final judgement until after vote counting, which tends to be the most delicate and fraud prone part of elections, and wasn’t due to begin until after nightfall. Results were expected Monday or Tuesday.
Voters’ inexperience was an issue during the campaign and on election day. Many voters said they were overwhelmed by the nearly 11,000 candidates, over 80 political parties and 116 electoral lists competing, all but a handful of them virtually unknown to most Tunisians.
On Sunday, an elderly woman shuffled out of a polling booth in a working class Tunis suburb, puzzling over her ink-stained finger. Other voters explained the ink was used to prevent double voting.
The weeks of campaigning in the run-up to Sunday’s vote saw growing polarization between Islamic and more secular-oriented parties. But some of the vitriol appeared to fade on election day as the country’s rival political forces struck a more conciliatory tone. The Al-Sabah newspaper acknowledged in their election day editorial that, despite months of criticisms of interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, he had done a good job. “Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister,” the paper’s editors wrote.
Leaders of Nahda, which was banned and brutally suppressed under the former regime, said they were pleasantly surprised when, on the eve of Sunday’s vote, a representative of the staunchly secular PDP, which had been Nahda’s most outspoken critics during the campaign, showed up to their headquarters with a handwritten note, conveying condolences for a Nahda party member who died in a car accident.
“In my opinion it was a political message as well,” said Mr. Ferjani, perhaps a tentative outreach to the Islamist Party it had vowed to oppose in any future government. A PDP official declined to comment.
The degree to which the country’s Islamist and more secular-oriented parties are able to work together, or at least compete peacefully within agreed upon political and democratic parameters, will be one of the most closely watched issues in coming weeks and months.
Nahda, which is known for its more progressive interpretations of Islam compared with similar movements elsewhere in the region, has stressed its tolerant bona fides throughout the campaign. But many secular Tunisians remain deeply skeptical about the party’s true intentions.
At polling stations around the country, orderly lines snaked around city blocks. Voters huddled under umbrellas for shade, and fanned themselves with newspapers, one of whose headlines read, “I vote therefore I am.” Turnout, which some observers had predicted might lag on election day, exceeded many Tunisians’ expectations.
“I’ve never been so happy to wait in line. It’s a great moment for us,” said Walid Sellami, 27, a financial consultant voting in the upscale Tunis neighborhood of Menzah along with his mother and father. “It’s the first free elections in the Arab World. We believe in this. We believe we are done with dictators in Tunisia.”
Mr. Sellami waited two-and-a-half hours to cast his vote for Tekatil, a secular, center left party expected to be among the five or six largest parties in the upcoming assembly.
“It’s our first election so it doesn’t matter who wins,” said Sellami said. “I am happy if the people vote for other parties. Our goal is to join the democratic world.”
The region is watching Tunisia’s elections. Political scientists have already begun dissecting the conditions in Tunisia and the decisions taken by the country’s post-revolutionary leadership that appear to be succeeding in a democratic transition where other country’s are struggling.
Libya successfully ousted its long time strongman, Moammar Gadhafi, and declared formal liberation on Sunday. Egypt’s protestors forced Hosni Mubarak from power in February, but in the months since the country’s ruling generals have reversed many of the democratic gains. The country is due to kick off elections for a new parliament on Nov. 28. Bahrain has brutally suppressed the uprising there, while Syria and Yemen remain engulfed in violence.
“Those in the region not taking notice now, they will take notice as Tunisia’s path diverges in coming years,” said Jason Brownlee, a University of Texas political science professor who has written extensively on democratic transitions and came to Tunisia to observer Sunday’s vote.Top