Tunisia votes in historic free election

Tunisians have voted in their first truly free elections.

More than 90% of registered voters have turned out to cast their ballot in Tunisia's election, the first free poll of the Arab Spring, officials say.

Tunisians are electing a 217-seat assembly that will draft a constitution and appoint an interim government.

Former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown nine months ago after mass demonstrations.

Islamist party Ennahda is expected to win the most votes, though it is not clear if it will gain a majority.

Mr Ben Ali fled Tunisia on 14 January amid the first of several mass uprisings across the Arab world.

Campaigning in Tunisia has been marked by concerns over splits between Islamists and secularists, party funding and voter apathy.

Electoral commission secretary-general Boubaker Bethabet said more than 90% of the 4.1 million registered citizens had voted. No figures were available for another 3.1 million unregistered people who also had the right to vote.

Polling stations began to close at 19:00 (18:00 GMT) but people still queuing at that time were being allowed to stay and cast their vote, AFP said.

Results are expected by Monday.

'Liberty and dignity'

At the scene

They stood patiently and quietly in line for hours, waiting to vote. "We are suffering in this hot sun," one man told me. "But it is a beautiful kind of suffering". I asked another who he thought would win. "We are all going to win. This is a free election. It means we have already won".

For most it is the first time in their lives that they have voted in a free election. Tunisians know their emerging democracy carries a huge burden of expectation. Success here will resonate across the Arab world. But you sense an immense popular will to succeed. The cheerful public optimism is irresistible.

The Islamist Ennahda party is expected to emerge as the largest single group in the constitutional assembly.

Opponents have tried to paint the Islamists as extremists, but the campaign appears not to have worked. In poorer, more religiously conservative areas, men and women formed separate queues to vote. In these neighbourhoods, the religious parties are expected to do well.

Many voters emerged from polling stations holding up blue-stained index fingers - proud to show they had cast their ballots.

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation last December triggered the Tunisian revolt, told the Reuters news agency the election was a victory for dignity and freedom.

"Now I am happy that my son's death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice," Manoubia Bouazizi said. "I'm an optimist, I wish success for my country."

"I didn't sleep at all last night from excitement," voter Houcine Khlifi, 62, told the AFP news agency on Sunday morning as he was queuing to cast his ballot in central Tunis.

"Tunisia today offers to the world a bouquet of flowers of liberty and dignity."

Unlike its eastern neighbour Libya, Tunisia's transition from authoritarian rule has been largely peaceful.

Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, has sought to allay the fears of Tunisian secularists by stating its commitment to democracy and women's rights.

Its closest challenger is expected to be the secular, centrist Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

Ennahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, was heckled by a handful of secularist protesters as he left the polling station in Tunis where he voted.

The hecklers called him a terrorist and an assassin and shouted at him to return to London, where he spent 22 years in exile before returning to Tunisia in April.

Tunisia poll at a glance

  • First election since Arab Spring
  • More than 100 parties contesting poll
  • Voters electing 217-member Constituent Assembly (CA) to write constitution and choose prime minister
  • CA expected to have highest female representation in Arab world
  • Election organised under proportional representation system
  • Non-registered voters with ID cards entitled to vote
  • Tunisians in some foreign countries given the vote
  • Islamist Ennahda party expected to get most votes

But Mr Ghannouchi praised the electoral process, saying: "This is an historic day. Tunis was born again today; the Arab spring is born again today - not in a negative way of toppling dictators but in a positive way of building democratic systems, a representative system which represents the people."

There are more than seven million people of voting age. More than 100 parties have registered to participate, along with a number of independent lists.

Hundreds of foreign election observers and thousands of local ones will be monitoring the poll.

The EU observer mission has said that the overall campaign has been transparent.

This democratic moment carries an enormous burden of expectation, not just in Tunisia but across the Arab world, says the BBC's Allan Little, in the capital, Tunis.

Tunisians led the Arab Spring; they know the world will be watching this key stage in the transition, he says.

There seems here an overwhelming popular will to succeed, our correspondent adds.

Mr Ben Ali was ousted on 14 January after weeks of popular protest and fled to Saudi Arabia.

However, in the nine months since then, the economy has worsened as business and tourists stay away.

The new assembly is expected to draft a new constitution within a year.

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