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Arab Spring's first election

“Whatever happens next, I feel like now I exist”, said one man in Tunisia, just after voting. And, indeed, Sunday’s elections in the small country that sparked off the Arab awakening of 2011 have seen an amazing enthusiasm from people, young and old.

Voter turnout exceeded all expectations as over 90% of those who had registered cast their votes. Out of Tunisia’s 10.6 million population, 4.4 have the right to vote. Over the summer 95% of them registered.

A Facebook campaign “Je me suis inscrit – Je vote” was enthusiastically supported and circular red bumper stickers with the motto “ana qayyadtu" – the same message in Arabic – are still decorating walls and cars.

For Tunisians this is an historic moment as the election for a constituent assembly is their first chance to voice their political desires since the overthrow of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, last January. The new assembly has the task of designing a new political system and how the state will relate to its citizens.

The Tunisian political revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of a young fruit seller in the poor south of the country. Mohammed Bouazizi’s sacrifice became the signal for Tunisians to rise up against their oppressive rulers in a revolution which captured the imagination of millions of young Arabs, notably in Egypt where the dictator Mubarak was ousted within weeks.

The movement soon spread from North Africa to Spain and countless other countries which have seen democracy movements rise up.

The prejudice that Arab countries are incapable of embracing a wide range of views and holding truly democratic elections is being well and truly squashed by the seemingly endless and amazingly patient queues outside polling stations around the country.

They have voted for 11,000 candidates from nearly 100 parties for a 217 member constituent assembly in 33 districts of the country in a day which, according to thousands of international and local observers, saw few if any infringements of electoral procedures.

Dr Amor Boubakri, professor of law at the university of Sousse and a member of the Electoral Observatory , said he believed Tunisians have succeeded in making the Arab Spring's first election a resounding success.

Boubakri, who was interviewed by Al Jazeera, is confident that the election will be a democratic transition, highlighting pluralism, power-sharing, organised opposition and gender inclusiveness as never before.

It is undoubtedly a new phenomenon, “something happening for the first time in Arab culture”, as linguist and historian, Hammadi Sammoud has noted. “It is a rite of passage from accepting the things were decided for us to participating. We are creating ourselves.”

Huge problems beset the country, which has 700,000 out of work, a zero growth rate and near-junk status of its bond ratings. There is also a deep north-south divide. The northern coast benefits from tourism, cosmopolitanism and fertile land, while the south – where Bouazizi lived, remains dogged by poverty and under-development.

The people of the south and centre of the country are seen as a silent majority who have hitherto seen themselves as excluded from the entire political system.

Of the political parties, it is likely that al-Nahda (Renaissance), the moderate Turkish-style Islamic party will pick up voters in the coastal cities. But this will be countered by support for the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties and the Progressive Democratic Party.

The large number of political parties and diversity of views is an expression of Tunisia’s unique culture which has seen a synthesis of Ottoman, Arab and Islamic heritages with European influences.

The election is now re-shaping the relations of the citizens with the state. Tunisians know they are being closely watched by their neighbours in Morocco and Libya and more widely around the world. The huge enthusiasm shows a clear desire to take forward the democratic gains of the Tunisia’s January revolution into the social improvements that still elude ordinary people.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
24 October 2011

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