Students pictured in front of Sousse university in the Tunisian town of Sousse
Students pictured in front of Sousse university in the Tunisian town of Sousse on October 19, 2011, four days before the country's election. After decades of economic coddling coupled with political repression under the strongman rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, many in Sousse are clueless about who to vote for in historic elections Sunday for the drafters of a new constitution. © Bechir Bettaieb - AFP
Students pictured in front of Sousse university in the Tunisian town of Sousse
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Sofia Bouderbala, AFP
Last updated: October 19, 2011

Political puzzle for Tunisians as vote nears

Tunisia's frontrunning Islamists warned Wednesday that post-revolution elections risk being rigged, as tension rose with the Arab Spring's first polls four days away and Washington urging against violence.

The Islamist Ennahda party, widely tipped to win the biggest bloc of votes in historic polls Sunday, warned any fraud would spark a fresh uprising, nine months after a surprise wave of street protests toppled longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

A leftist grouping, the Democratic Modernist Pole (PDM), complained it had been harassed by Islamists in recent weeks amid widespread fears unrest could spoil Tunisia's democratic revolution.

"There is a risk of the election results being manipulated," Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told a press conference in Tunis.

"If there is manipulation, we will rejoin the forces and the guardians of the revolution which ousted Ben Ali and the first (interim) government. We are ready to oust up to 10 governments if needed," he said.

In a later statement, Ennahda stressed it would accept the result "once it is clear that the elections were free and fair", adding that fraud "is not something we expect to occur".

But if it did, "the Tunisian people who revolted against a dictatorship will not allow anyone to rob them of their dreams, and we will be with them to defend the objective of the revolution".

In a first taste of democracy for most, Tunisians will on Sunday elect a 217-seat constituent assembly which will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.

The United States voiced hope Wednesday that Tunisia's next government will represent a "broad spectrum", but warned against including any party that advocates violence.

"We want any government in Tunisia to be inclusive of a broad spectrum of the society and that certainly includes religious parties," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

"Where we would draw the line is that the use of violence for political purposes cannot ever be tolerated. And any political party that may use violence to that end cannot be a credible partner in the democratic transition in Tunisia."

Pollsters expect Ennahda to win the most votes on Sunday, stoking fears among some players that Tunisia may swap a secular dictatorship for a religious one.

Ghannouchi, who has stated repeatedly he would play the democratic game, accused his rivals of ganging up against Ennahda.

"It is their aim to destroy us," he said. "If the small movements enter into a coalition against Ennahda if we win the elections I can say that it will be a blow for democracy."

There have been sporadic anti-secular outbursts by ultra-conservative Salafists during the electoral campaign, including a petrol bomb attack on the home of a television director's house after the broadcast of a film deemed offensive to Muslims.

Ennahda (Renaissance in Arabic) has distanced itself from such acts.

The PDM claimed its supporters had been targeted in several towns.

"We condemn these acts of violence which come against a backdrop of systematic slander on the Internet and coincides with our coalition's surge over the past few weeks," PDM chairman Riadh Ben Fadhel told reporters.

Two other parties dismissed suspicions that a rigged election was in the offing and urged other movements not to stir up tempers.

"We will be as vigilant as they (Ennahda) are over any manipulation of the results but I believe that at this stage what is needed is a sign of appeasement," said Mustapha Ben Jaafar, chairman of the centre-left Ettakatol.

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

The short transition period was marked by protests against the pace of change and sporadic violence across the country, under intense global scrutiny as the spearhead of the fast-spreading Arab Spring.

Despite the high stakes, however, voter interest is low in a complex electoral landscape: some 7.3 million potential balloters will elect 217 constituent assembly members from more than 10,000 candidates.

In an attempt to scare the population into voting, one civil society organisation put together a video clip in which a towering Ben Ali portrait has returned to Tunis' port of La Goulette.

The clip, circulated on the Internet, passers-by first react with shock at the all-too-familiar sight, before tearing down the offending poster to reveal another underneath with a message in Arabic: "Wake up, the dictatorship can return! Go vote."

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