Political parties swarmed the streets of Tunisia’s capital Friday on the last day of campaigning for the country’s first democratic elections, with thousands flocking to a rally of the Islamist party punted to win.
Campaigning closes at midnight, with the Islamist Ennahda party expected to dominate a 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution and pave the way for a new government.
Several parties held their final meetings on Friday, including the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which sought to dazzle supporters with a red-carpet affair featuring a lazer light display.
In central Tunis, stalls manned by political party volunteers pumped out music over loudspeakers throughout the day and generously distributed flyers in a bid to capture the undecided vote, estimated by pollsters at more than half of some seven million eligible voters.
In the poorer Ben Arous suburb, thousands of men, women and children quickly filled a large clearing where ushers said some 15,000 seats had been set aside for people to hear Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi, who the crowd welcomed as a hero.
“God gave me a sign to vote for Ennahda,” Lalifa Kaobi, 53, told AFP amid the festive crowd waving Libyan, Palestinian, Egyptian and Ennahda party flags and chanting revolutionary slogans. Like the vast majority of the women assembled, she wore the Islamic hijab, or headscarf.
“We will recognise the results of the elections, we will congratulate the winners, no matter Ennahda’s score,” Ghannouchi told supporters, adding: “To date, the campaign has been acceptable.”
Ennahda was banned under the 23-year dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, ousted in a popular uprising in January which sparked the Arab Spring movement that claimed its latest victim with the killing Thursday of Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi.
The Islamist party, expected to win up to 30 percent of the vote, had warned on Wednesday of vote-rigging and vowed new uprisings if it detects electoral fraud.
Elsewhere in the capital, PDP leader Maya Jribi rallied some 2,000 party supporters: “Let us show the world the real image of an open and moderate Tunisia”.
“With their vote, women can hold the balance. We need the support of everyone who is for moderation and against extremism and regressive forces,” said Jribi, the sole female leader out of 80 parties contesting the poll.
The latest opinion polls put the PDP in second place.
As campaign cars drove through the streets of Tunis broadcasting last-minute election messages and party leaflets lay scattered on pavements, several people stopped at a wall covered in political posters on the Avenue de Paris, a main artery, mulling their options.
“I have almost chosen, but am still comparing the programmes,” 50-year-old teacher Hachicha Saoussen told AFP.
“I want to vote for someone progressive, someone who will maintain the personal status code (which guarantees equality for Tunisian women).”
“Of course I will vote,” added Hassoun Ben Hassoun, 60.
“This will be the first time ever I can vote in a free election, and that at my age!”
UN rights chief Navi Pillay urged Tunisians to turn out in numbers for the poll, saying that the country can act as a role model for others in the region.
She said “it is important that Tunisians — young and old, women and men — make their voices heard once again, this time by casting their votes.”
The election system has been designed to include as many parties as possible in the constituent assembly.
The body will have to address such crucial issues as the form of the new government and guarantees of basic rights, including gender equality, which many fear Ennahda would seek to diminish.
It will also have the loaded task of appointing a president who will assign a caretaker government to run the country for the duration of the drafting process, expected to take a year.
The stakes are high. The success or failure of the election will send a strong signal to the people of the Arab world who drew courage from Tunisia’s revolutionary example.
Claiming to model itself on Muslim Turkey’s secular state, Ennahda has sought to reassure a divided electorate by promising not to carve away at women’s rights, widely considered the most liberal in the Arab world.
But secularists have denounced what they call the party’s double-speak, accusing it of being modernist in public but radical in the mosques.
More than 100 political parties in all will contest Sunday’s polls, but the progressive left remains divided with party leaders having ruled out a pre-vote alliance.
Results are expected Monday.