TUNIS: Millions of Tunisians will head to the polls Sunday for landmark democratic elections, the first since the ouster of longtime dictator Zine al- Abidine Ben Ali only 10 months ago.
Thursday, a day ahead of a government-enforced campaign blackout at midnight Friday, political parties campaigned hard in the Arab Spring’s birthplace amid celebrations of the fall of its latest victim, Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadhafi.
Tunisians will elect a 217-member constituent assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution and appointing a new government.
Over 100 political parties have registered since the Jan. 14 revolution, but all eyes are on frontrunner, Ennahda, a moderate Islamist movement, and the sharp divide that has emerged with secular groups who fear an erosion of the country’s culture of tolerance.
From his sparse office in Ennahda’s white-washed five-story headquarters, Noureddine Arboui, a member of the group’s political bureau, said that his party was confident. “The difference is between excellent and good,” he said, comparing the party’s campaign in Tunisia’s 27 electoral districts.
Arboui spent 17 years in prison under Ben Ali and he attributes much of the party’s popularity to the suffering of its members, who were arrested by the thousands during Ben Ali’s purges.
“This is the reason that we are known to everyone. My family struggled for 17 years. People watched this family struggle,” he said.
The party, led by long-exiled Rachid Ghannouchi, has opened 200 political offices since January and their electoral ground game is believed to far surpass those of their most serious opponents.
Ennahda’s supporters – the movement’s popularity varies between 25 percent and 50 percent of the electorate depending on whom you ask – say they are drawn to its religious bearings but also to what they consider the trustworthiness of its candidates.
“I was anti-Nahda. Ben Ali always told us that Islamists were terrorists, that they would do bad things,” Wassim Sbiai said as he casually smoked a string of cigarettes at an Ennahda rally in Tunis’ Menzah 6 suburb.
But Sbiai, wearing a white hat and white shirt each emblazoned with the party’s logo, a blue bird cradling a red star in its outstretched wings, detailed his change of heart.
“One day I went to their local office. I expected to find bearded men in Islamic clothes. But I found good people,” he said. “They are fair. They are not liars. They are moderate with good sense.”
Ennahda’s candidates have campaigned widely on a message of moderation, but many Tunisians are reluctant to believe them.
At a meeting Wednesday of female candidates who head party lists, several women voiced concern about Ennahda’s program.
“There are certain parties that do not have the same view of women,” said Amal Radwani of the leftist Moupad party, referring to Ennahda. “Even the women of Ennahda believe there are women and there are men and that there is a difference.”
“We are democratic,” she added, “and we aspire to equality.”
Ennahda’s Arboui said those who say the party is feigning moderation to enforce a strict Islamic agenda later “are men who do not want to tell the truth.”
Whether the party will face serious opposition remains to be seen.
The center-left Progressive Democratic Party, founded by Najib Chebbi and the largest opposition party under Ben Ali, is the second best known party in Tunisia.
“Our message is one of the future and progress. Others are more interested in looking to the past,” said Ali Hachani of the PDP’s executive political committee, in reference to Ennahda.
Ettakatol, a progressive democratic party led by Mustapha Ben Jafar, is also expected to do well.
“We’ve had a very good campaign, a very favorable response from people across the country – from the workplaces to the cafes,” said Ettakatol spokesman Ben Nour Mohammad.
But left-leaning parties like PDP and Ettakatol, and more socialistic movements like the Modern Democratic Pole and the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party, acknowledge that with so many parties and fairly similar economic programs, any one party will have trouble topping Ennahda.
As a result, rumors abound of possible post-election alliances to attain a majority. PDP’s Hachani said his party was actively pursuing possible alliances after the polls.
“We have proposed that progressive and democratic parties create an alliance after the elections. An alliance that is able to govern in the spirit of modernity,” he said, noting Ettakatol and Afek Tounes, one of the new, popular left of center parties.
Many party officials share the fear that with over 10,000 candidates, nearly half of them independent, the new constituent assembly will be paralyzed by fragmentation. Others fear that Tunisians, overwhelmed by the options, will sit out the vote.
In what has been a fairly smooth campaign, Ennahda head Ghannouchi raised concern Wednesday with talk of possible voter manipulation.
“If there is flagrant falsification of the results we will join the forces of the revolution, that started this revolution, to protect the will of the people,” he said.
Thousands of election observers, and hundreds from the EU and American organizations like NDI and the Carter Center, have spread across the country to register any such irregularities.
In addition, more than 42,000 security personnel – 22,000 soldiers and 20,000 police officers – will be on hand to oversee the vote.