Tunisians formed snaking queues in the sun to vote in their first free elections Sunday, basking in their status as democratic trail-blazers nine months after ousting a dictator and giving birth to the Arab Spring.
The Islamist Ennahda party was predicted to win the most votes but fall short of a majority in a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution and appoint a president to form a caretaker government.
Polling stations started closing at 7.00 pm (1800 GMT), with no serious incidents reported and elections chief Kamel Jendoubi saying voter turnout had “exceeded all expectations”.
ISIE electoral commission secretary-general Boubaker Bethabet said more than 90 percent of some 4.1 million citizens who registered ahead of the poll had cast their votes on Sunday — at least half of all eligible voters.
No figures were available for the other 3.1 million voters who did not register but also had the right to vote.
US President Barack Obama congratulated Tunisians on the vote, which he described as “an important step forward.”
“The United States reaffirms its commitment to the Tunisian people as they move toward a democratic future that offers dignity, justice, freedom of expression, and greater economic opportunity for all,” he said in a statement.
Voter Houcine Khlifi, 62, had tears in his eyes as he spoke of finally casting his ballot after spending a sleepless night in anticipation of the country’s first-ever electoral contest without a pre-determined result.
“Tunisia today offers the world a bouquet of flowers of liberty and dignity,” he told AFP in central Tunis shortly after polling opened at 7.00 am.
“On this day, I vote in memory of my husband who gave his life for our dear country, our liberty,” 63-year-old Rbiaa Dalhoumi said through her tears after voting in Kasserine. The western town bore the brunt of the government’s brutal crackdown on the revolution that ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Salem Bouazizi, brother of fruitseller Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation sparked the revolution, cast his first democratic vote in the southern town of Sfax at the age of 31.
“His sacrifice was not in vain. We have continued his work and I am proud to be Tunisian today,” the carpenter told AFP.
The assembly elected on Sunday will decide on the country’s system of government and how to guarantee basic liberties, including women’s rights, which many people fear Ennahda would seek to diminish despite its assurances to the contrary.
It will also have the authority to write laws and pass budgets.
Ennahda says it models itself on the ruling AKP party in Turkey, another Muslim-majority country, which like Tunisia to date has a secular state. But its critics have accused it of preaching modernism in public and radicalism in the mosques.
Tunisia’s progressive left remains divided before Ennahda, with party leaders having failed to form a pre-vote alliance.
In a sign of the tension between the Islamists and secularists, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was heckled after voting in a Tunis suburb.
But Ghannouchi, who until recently was in exile, said with a smile: “This turnout demonstrates the people’s thirst for democracy.”
The electoral system was designed to include as many parties as possible in drafting the new constitution, which is expected to take a year, ahead of fresh national elections.
Ennahda is likely to seek a post-poll coalition with smaller parties to give it a bigger say on the body.
Sunday’s vote is the first run by an independent electoral body after decades of ballot-stuffing by the interior ministry.
The European Union hailed Tunisia’s elections and vowed support for the new authorities.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “As the first country in the region to put democracy to the test at the polling booth, Tunisia is once again leading the way.”
Ben Ali was ousted in January after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, in a popular uprising that sparked region-wide uprisings which claimed their latest Arab strongman Thursday with the killing of Moamer Kadhafi of Libya.
In polls witnessed by some 40,000 security force members and 13,000 observers, Tunisians could choose from more than 11,000 candidates — half of them women by law — representing 80 parties and thousands of independents.
Vote counting will start immediately with results updated throughout the night. Official results will be released Tuesday.
Jendoubi said there had been “some irregularities and some difficulties, but in general this will not affect the electoral process and their effect on the results will be minimal.”
The current, interim government will remain in power until the assembly appoints a new president, which is not expected before November 9.