x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tunisians expect today's election 'to be our voices'

Smooth elections in Tunisia today could vindicate the revolution but low turnout or fraud could cast it into doubt.

SIDI BOU SAID, TUNISIA // When Tunisia last voted, election officials in this sleepy Tunis suburb commandeered the primary school and brusquely ejected its headmistress, Halima Guebli. This year a new crop of officials asked her for help.

"The way they used to control everything made me feel powerless," she said, refurbishing classrooms yesterday as voting stations. "Now elections will be transparent."

Today, Tunisians vote in their first free elections - a key step toward democracy following the uprising that ended the 23-year rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The revolt inspired movements that toppled leaders in Egypt and Libya and threaten Arab autocrats elsewhere.

Once again, all eyes are likely to turn to Tunisia for lessons in the dos - or the don'ts - of passing from dictatorship to democracy.

Smooth elections could vindicate revolution but low turnout or fraud allegations could cast it into doubt.

Today's election would produce a national assembly to set up a fresh interim government and draft a new constitution.

"Elections are part of learning to jump into the world of democracy - of human rights, press freedom and rule of law," said Alejandro Toledo, a former Peruvian president who is helping lead election observers in Tunisia from the National Democratic Institute, a US pro-democracy non-profit.

While previous elections were run by an interior ministry beholden to Mr Ben Ali, today's polls are organised by an independent electoral commission.

Former regime officials and the fringe Islamist Hizb Attahrir party are barred from elections, but interim authorities have otherwise largely removed Ben Ali-era restrictions on political participation.

That has prompted more than a hundred parties to throw their hats in the ring - a burst of democratic exuberance that could nevertheless pose difficulties. "With so many parties, one logistical problem is simply that some voters may have trouble telling who is who," Mr Toledo said.

As the swift rise of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party has focused campaigning on the question of Tunisia's identity, party platforms have largely dropped to the wayside.

While Ennahda is expected to top the vote, campaigners in south Tunis were scrambling last week to promote its political and economic programme, said Hassen Beldi, Ennahda's campaign director there.

Mrs Guebli, meanwhile, was basking in the thrill of preparing for a free vote. Yesterday, staff at Sidi Bou Said's primary school stacked children's desks outside to make room for voting booths.

"These are for the observers," Mrs Guebli said, indicating a line of chairs along a classroom wall. "That's definitely something new."

Outside, an army colonel helping provide security was chatting affably with teachers and election officials.

"The old elections were a masquerade. Whether you voted or not, it was the same thing," Mrs Guebli said. "Now it's going to be our voices."