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Tunisia set to vote in first free elections

Tunisian men and women go to the polls today in the first free elections since the country gained independence from France in 1956.

Image: Amine Landoulsi/AP/Press Association Images

VOTING IS UNDERWAY in Tunisia in the first free election that has emerged following this year’s Arab Spring.

It is nine months since the ousting of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali following the popular uprising. Today’s election will bring an end to decades of authoritarian rule.

Citizens of the North African country will elect a 217-seat assembly that will then go on to appoint a new government and write the country’s constitution.

Al Jazeera reports that polls opened at 7am local time and will close at 7pm. Results are due to be declared as early as Monday.

About 40,000 police and soldiers have been deployed to prevent any possible protests from turning violent. Some residents fear that there may be disruptions today but nothing has been reported so far this morning.

Tunisia’s revolution was the first of the Arab Spring and it is credited for inspiring the series of similar uprisings across the Middle East. If Tunisia’s elections produce an effective new government the country will once more serve as an inspiration to pro-democracy advocates across the region.

According to the BBC, Ennahda – a moderate Islamic party – is expected to win. However, it may not gain a clear majority.

A victory by the party could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region. Tunisia is usually a more secular society.

Controversy

The campaign season has been marked by controversies over advertising, fears over society’s religious polarisation and concerns about voter apathy, but in the run up to the vote a mood of optimism and excitement in the capital was palpable.

There are 7.5 million potential voters, though only 4.4 million of them, or just under 60 per cent, are actually registered. People can vote with their identity cards, but only at certain stations, which some fear may cause confusion during the polls.

Voters in each of the country’s 33 districts – six of which are abroad – have a choice of between around 40 and 80 electoral lists, consisting of parties and independent candidates. There is an estimated 11,000 candidates.

A proportional representation system will likely mean that no political party will dominate the assembly, which is expected to be divided roughly between the Ennahda party, centrist parties and leftist parties, requiring coalitions and compromises during the writing of the constitution.

In the 10 months since the uprising, Tunisia’s economy, part of the reason for the revolution in the first place, has only become worse as tourists and foreign investors have stayed away.

Many have expressed indifference about the elections out of frustration that new jobs have yet to appear and life has not improved since the revolution.

-Additional reporting by AP

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