TUNIS // Voters in Tunisia's historic national assembly elections looked likely yesterday to make a long-persecuted Islamist party the most powerful in the country.
The moderate Islamist Ennahda party said it expected to take 40 per cent of the vote. Election officials said turnout could reach 90 per cent of registered voters.
However, because many eligible voters did not register, only 57 per cent of the 7.2 million potential voters actually went to the polls.
The final count expected today could result in an Islamist party helping to run an Arab democracy, the latest new ground broken by the country that inspired the Arab Spring.
Electoral officials also had to grapple with the challenge of mounting free elections in a country where voting was long manipulated to bolster an autocratic regime.
The 217-seat national assembly that emerges from the ballot boxes has the task of forming a fresh interim government and writing a new constitution.
For voters who jammed polling centres on Sunday, the vote marked a step forward from the January revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.
Ben Ali's removal unleashed a wave of revolt that unseated leaders in Egypt and Libya and is shaking Arab regimes elsewhere.
Across North Africa, regime change has empowered Islamists who spent decades outlawed and persecuted by now-defunct dictatorships.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is free of the scourge of Hosni Mubarak, while Islamists figure among the militia leaders who fought to bring down Muammar Qaddafi.
Ennahda has likened itself to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, embracing democracy and vowing to respect Tunisia's progressive laws on women's rights, and supports a national unity government to bridge Tunisia's Islamist-secularist divide.
"I think they will go for a national unity government even if they get a majority of votes," said Michael Willis, professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies at Oxford University. "They'll want to calm things down."
Such a government could be built on an alliance of Ennahda, the secularist Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the left-leaning Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known by its Arabic name, Ettakatol, Mr Willis said.
"The CPR and Ettakatol disagree with Ennahda, but they've been willing to talk with them," he said.
Ennahda's swift ascent has polarised debate on the role of religion in public life, with some secularists claiming that Ennahda's moderate message masks a radical agenda.
Voters from across the political spectrum, meanwhile, say economic malaise is their most immediate concern.
Polling centres across Tunisia were packed on Sunday, as voters young and old, male and female, rich and poor, turned out to write the next chapter of their country's history.
That helped to make Sunday's vote an "extraordinary achievement", according to a report yesterday by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US pro-democracy NGO that sent 47 observers to polling stations around the country.
While voting was largely orderly, some polling centres were overwhelmed by would-be voters scrambling to register at the last minute.
Of 7.2 million people who were eligible to vote, only 4.1 million registered, according to Tunisia's electoral commission.
Concerns over lacklustre registration emerged over the summer, prompting election officials to extend the registration period to give voters more time.
Those concerns became fact in the impoverished Tunis suburb of Sidi Hassine, where some voters were still unsure how to register or whom to vote for.
"I lost my ID card so I couldn't register, but I brought my passport," said Jouda Troudi, a divorced and illiterate mother of five. "I don't know who to vote for - maybe an independent."
"Ennahda!" suggested a man standing near Mrs Troudi.
"All right, Ennahda then, I suppose," Mrs Troudi said, entering the school complex that served Sidi Hassine as a voting centre.
Inside, the centre's director, Mohammed Gentassi, struggled to assure a scrum of unregistered voters that they would be able to vote. In some cases, they did so at special emergency centres set up by the electoral committee.
For some in Sidi Hassine, the quest to vote prompted improvisation.
"My ID card is from El Kef, but I've lived here for 15 years," said Nasr Zihani, who brought an electricity bill as proof of residence in Sidi Hassine.
The independent commission that organised Sunday's vote faced an unprecedented challenge, said Les Campbell, NDI's Middle East and North Africa director, who helped to lead election observers.
"They had a short time to prepare, and the country had never had elections organised democratically before," he said. "And no one anticipated the volume of voters."
Past elections were run by an interior ministry beholden to Ben Ali and orchestrated to guarantee victory for him and his party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).
Voters in previous elections encountered colour-coded chits, regime officials and intimidation to take only the red of the RCD into the curtained voting booth. Voters on Sunday were given a single form listing all the parties.
Ben Ali's claims of massive turnout concealed true figures that hovered between 10 and 15 per cent, Mr Campbell said.
Whatever turnout figure emerges in final results today, "it will be a five or six-fold increase on previous elections," Mr Campbell said.