Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party at a rally in Ben Arous, southern Tunis, yesterday
Tunisian voters on Saturday weighed their choices on the eve of the Arab Spring's historic first elections nine months after the surprise toppling of strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali that started it all. © Lionel Bonaventure - AFP
Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party at a rally in Ben Arous, southern Tunis, yesterday
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AFP
Last updated: October 22, 2011

Tunisians gear up for historic vote

Tunisian voters weighed their choices Saturday on the eve of the Arab Spring's historic first election nine months after the toppling of strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

"I am so happy to be voting tomorrow, to be able for the first time to exercise my choice," Neda Kouki, 37, told AFP on the streets of Tunis.

"I get goose bumps just thinking about it," she added, pulling up her sleeve and showing her forearm as proof.

With many voters undecided to the end, elections chief Kamel Jendoubi declared his ISIE polling commission "ready and confident".

"We are happy, we are excited, we want the elections to succeed," he told journalists with 18 hours to go before the first-ever democratic contest in a country where the outcome of polls used to be a foregone conclusion.

Jendoubi urged the current, interim government, however, not to interfere or risk jeopardising the election's credibility.

He was reacting to a statement by a foreign ministry official, which he said had created the impression the ministry rather than the ISIE was "running the election".

"The only organisation that has the authority to issue information about voting is the high commission for elections and no-one else," the elections chief said.

"If any representative of the government intervenes, that could jeopardise the credibility of this election."

The Islamist Ennahda party is tipped to win the biggest bloc of ballots in Sunday's polls in which 7.2 million eligible voters are called to elect a 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution.

It will also have the loaded task of appointing an interim president and a caretaker government that will remain in place for the duration of the drafting process, expected to take a year.

"There are too many parties," said Hishem Jmel, 47, an unemployed, undecided voter. But he stressed that casting his ballot was nevertheless "a duty, for a better future".

Voters can choose from some 11,000 candidates representing 80 political parties and thousands of independents.

Mohamed Ben Salah, is one of the thousands of Tunisians who took to the streets in December and January in leaderless protests against corruption, poverty and unemployment that forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.

"I am 30 years old, but I have no work, no wife, no car, no house. I will be voting for freedom and for jobs," he said.

The European Union observer mission said the campaigning, which ended on Friday had been calm and disciplined.

"There is almost no chance of cheating or falsifying results, as the processes are transparent," mission head Michael Gahler told AFP. "If everything goes as expected, we will have a credible result."

ISIE official Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudhn said all polling stations would have their ballot papers by the end of Saturday.

And Jendoubi added: "As far as security is concerned I think things are going the right way. There is a lot of vigilance."

Ennahda had warned on Wednesday of a risk of vote rigging. It vowed a fresh uprising if it detected fraud.

But party leader Rached Ghannouchi stressed at a final rally Friday Ennahda "will recognise the results of the elections, we will congratulate the winners, no matter Ennahda's score."

The party had been banned and Ghannouchi exiled under Ben Ali, whose overthrow sparked region-wide uprisings that claimed their latest victim Thursday with the killing of Libya's Moamer Kadhafi.

Tunisia's historic polls will coincide with an official Libyan declaration of "liberation" from dictatorship.

The new constituent assembly will have to address such crucial issues as the form of the new government system and guarantees of basic rights, including gender equality, which many fear Ennahda would seek to diminish.

Claiming to model itself on Muslim Turkey's secular state, Ennahda has sought to reassure the electorate by promising not to curb women's rights, widely considered the most liberal in the Arab world.

The progressive left remains divided, having failed to agree on a pre-poll coalition.

The stakes are high. The success or failure of the election will send a strong signal to the people of the Arab world who drew courage from Tunisia's revolutionary example to start their own uprisings.

"It is a dream come true," said 65-year-old pensioner Mustapha Bensmail, who recalled how under Ben Ali "people looked over your shoulder as you made your cross.

"For the first time we will see Tunisians voting in liberty."

Final election results are expected Monday.

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