TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisians turned out in huge numbers to vote in the country’s first free election on Sunday, 10 months after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a protest that started the Arab Spring uprisings.
The leader of an Islamist party predicted to win the biggest share of the vote was heckled outside a polling station by people shouting “terrorist”, highlighting tensions between Islamists and secularists being felt across the Arab world.
The suicide of vegetable peddler Bouazizi, prompted by despair over poverty and government repression, provoked mass protests which forced President Zine al-Abidine to flee Tunisia. This in turn inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderately Islamist Ennahda party, took his place in the queue outside a polling station in the El Menzah 6 district of the capital.
“This is an historic day,” he said, accompanied by his wife and daughter, both wearing Islamic headscarves, or hijabs. “Tunisia was born today. The Arab Spring was born today.”
As he emerged from the polling station, about a dozen people shouted at him: “Degage”, French for “Go away”, and “You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!”
Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain, has associated his party with the moderate Islamism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. He has said he will not try to impose Muslim values on society.
In Tunisia, ideas about Islam, and restrictions on things like alcohol, are more relaxed than in many Arab countries.
“This morning I voted for Ennahda and this evening I am going to drink a few beers,” said Makram, a young man from the working class Ettadamen neighbourhood of Tunis.
Nevertheless, the party’s rise worries secularists who believe the liberal traditions in Tunisia , a former French colony, are now under threat.
Across the country, queues stretching hundreds of metres formed outside polling stations from early in the morning for an election which could set the template for other Middle Eastern states emerging from the Arab Spring.
“Out of the 4.1 million people registered, more than 90 percent voted,” said Boubaker Ben Thaber, Secretary-General of the independent commission that organized the vote.
That level of voter interest was never seen during Ben Ali’s rule. Then, only a trickle of people turned out for elections because they knew the result was predetermined.
“This is the first time I have voted,” said Karima Ben Salem, 45, at a polling station in the Lafayette area of Tunis.
“I’ve asked the boys to make their own lunch. I don’t care ... Today I am not on duty. Or rather, I am on duty for my country,” she said.
Sunday’s vote is for an assembly that will draft a new constitution to replace the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new president and parliament.
Election officials say they will spend Sunday night counting the ballot papers, and are unlikely to release preliminary results until Monday.
Most forecasts are that Ennahda will not have enough seats for a majority in the assembly, forcing it to seek a coalition which will dilute its influence. Secularist parties will try to form a coalition to stop Ennahda forming a majority.
Ennahda has been at pains to assuage the concerns of secularists and Western powers. Yet observers say there is tension inside the party between Ghannouchi’s moderate line and more vehement Islamists among the rank and file.
A final election rally on Friday illustrated the party’s contradictions as Suad Abdel-Rahim, a tall, glamorous female Ennahda candidate who does not wear a veil, addressed the crowd.
But many books on sale on the fringes of the rally were by writers who belong to the strict Salafist branch of Islam. They believe women should be segregated from men in public and that elections are un-Islamic.
“I‘m not so optimistic about the result of the vote,” said Ziyed Tijiani, a 26-year-old architect who had just cast his vote. His forefinger was stained with the blue ink used in polling stations to stop ballot fraud.
“I think the Islamists could win. It’s not want I want. They may try to change the way I live,” he said, accompanied by a young woman in jeans and T-shirt.
An Ennahda victory would be the first such success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 election in Algeria, Tunisia’s neighbor. The army annulled the result, provoking years of conflict.
Ennahda’s fortunes may have a bearing on Egyptian elections set for next month in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological ally, also hopes to emerge strongest.
Tunisia’s election will be watched too in neighboring Libya, which plans elections next year after a bloody revolt ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Tunisian election officials say they are unlikely to release preliminary results until Monday.
Tim Pawlenty, former governor of the U.S. state of Minnesota, was part of a delegation observing the vote from the International Republican Institute.
“The turnout seems to be good. The process has been orderly so far but it is too early to make any final conclusions,” he told Reuters.
He said at one voting precinct he asked a man if Tunisia had left enough time to prepare for the election. “He paused, looked at me and said: ‘Yes, I had 30 years preparation for this’,” Pawlenty said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond in Sidi Bouzid and Abdelaziz Boumzar, Mohamed Argoubi and Warda Al-Jawahiry in Tunis; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Roche