The moderate Islamist party Ennahda appears to have won Tunisia’s first-ever democratic election nine months after the so-called Jasmine Revolution.
Sunday's vote was hailed by electoral observers, which included a Swiss-led team from the Council of Europe. All eyes are on the transition in Tunisia, which remains the key test case for other Arab states.
Election officials are still counting ballots from Sunday's vote but partial results released seem to back claims by Ennahda that it won at least 40 per cent of the seats in the 217-member assembly which will be responsible for writing a new constitution, running the country and appointing a new caretaker president.
But results so far suggest the Islamists failed to win a clear majority, so a coalition must be formed.
After having been silenced for years by dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whose overthrow on January 14, 2011 inspired the Arab Spring, huge numbers of Tunisians at home and abroad turned out to vote.
Officials said there were only minor violations and western monitors applauded the election.
Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, who led a team of Council of Europe election observers, praised the transparent process and the behaviour of the voters.
“I was impressed by the dignity, pride and responsibility of citizens prepared to wait two or three hours in a school yard to place their vote in the box – more than 90 per cent of Tunisians took part,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“You sensed the importance of this historic moment which for the first time gave Tunisians the freedom to choose an institution and give it legitimacy and legal status.”
Nothing to fear
Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has gone to great lengths to reassure secularists and the business community, nervous about the idea of Islamists in power, that they have nothing to fear.
Ghannouchi met stock market executives in Tunis on Wednesday to send a business-friendly message. The party has also stressed it will not enforce any code of morality on Tunisian society, or the millions of western tourists who holiday on its Mediterranean beaches.
The Ennahda leader models his approach on the moderate Islamism of Turkey, explained Riadh Sidaoui, director of the Geneva-based Arab Centre for Research and Political and Social Analysis.
“The leadership was forced into exile in London for a long time [because of harassment by Tunisian police] and understood about the need to have a balanced outlook,” he told swissinfo.ch. “No one wants a repeat of the 1991 Algerian scenario.”
Solidarity and honesty
During the election campaign the party tapped into a desire among ordinary Tunisians to be able to express their faith freely after years of aggressively enforced secularism.
“Family solidarity around Islamist prisoners also helped create a real support network for Ennahda,” Vincent Geisser, a Tunisia expert at the French National Center for Scientific Research, told Le Temps newspaper.
It also sought to show it could represent all Tunisians, including the large minority who have a more laissez-faire view of religion and its rules.
“Some Tunisians wanted to give them a try, especially as the Islamists cultivated an image of people with integrity and honesty who hadn’t yet managed the country,” Paris-based analyst Agnes Levallois, author of A User’s Guide to the Middle East, told AFP news agency. “The fact that they were victimised for so long also adds to their legitimacy, as it were.”
Sidaoui felt Sunday’s result could be explained by various factors: a well-funded campaign, Tunisians desire to punish those who collaborated with Ben Ali, a divided left-wing, and a wave of enthusiasm in the Arab world for Islamist parties.
“Political Islam is a necessary gateway for democratic change in the Arab world,” political analyst Khattar Abou Diab, professor of international relations at L’Universite Paris-Sud, told AFP.
“This is the most powerful political force in the Arab world today, the best organised and best financed.”
Egypt, which is due to hold a parliamentary vote on November 28, is likely to see a similar political turn after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
“After elections, there will be a transitional phase during which other [secular] parties restructure,” said Abou Diab.
“In the meantime, the people may well realise that Islamists’ ability to work miracles is one big illusion.”
Tunisia, nonetheless, remains the most important test case, said Sidaoui.
“If Tunisia doesn’t become a democratic state, the others will remain very far from their democratic dreams,” he warned.
Also known as the Jasmine Revolution, this non-violent popular movement was sparked by the self-immolation of a young fruit and vegetable stall holder in the town of Sidi Bouzid whose goods had been confiscated by the authorities.
From December 17, 2010, the demonstrations grew in size and intensity until January 14, 2011 when President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1987, left the country. During that period, 300 people were killed and 700 injured.
On February 27, popular pressure led to the nomination of a new government and a date was finally set for new elections for a Constituent Assembly – October 23.
The Constituent Assembly will draw up the permanent constitution. It will also name a president for the transitional period.
It is expected to name a prime minister as well, who will choose his own ministers and submit them to the assembly for approval. Otherwise it may ask the current government to stay in office.
Switzerland paid for all the ballot boxes being used in the election. The boxes comply with international standards.
The Swiss foreign ministry told swissinfo.ch that supplying transition countries with election materials was in line with international law and could boost voters’ confidence in the process.
Switzerland also sent 12 experts and observers to assist in the monitoring of the election, among them members of teams representing European bodies and the International Organisation for La Francophonie.
Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross led a 20-strong delegation of observers from the Council of Europe.
It also supports various civil society organisations that are attempting to raise awareness and educate citizens about their civil rights.