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In this power vacuum, the fear is Ennahda will rule unchecked and start repeating the behavior of the former ruling party, Mr. Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally, which dominated all aspects of political and economic life before it was disbanded.

Critics say Ennahda already is running roughshod over the opposition, antagonizing the unions, quarreling with civil society and showing little interest in building democratic institutions.

New voters are key

The key to the next election will be the new voters. More than 40 percent of eligible voters were not registered in October. About one third of the electorate, some 1.3 million voters, voted for parties that did not make it into the assembly.

Unless the opposition organizes into a serious challenge, the Islamist machine could snap up the new voters.

Maya Jribi, one of the only women leading a political party in the country, admitted that her secular, center-left Progressive Democratic Party made a lot of mistakes in the last election.

Believed to be a front-runner at the time, the historic opposition party came in a distant fifth with just 16 seats. The party now has united with several others to form the Jumhouri or Republican Party, with 21 seats total and hopes to join up with more to create a more viable opposition.

“The clear lesson from the Oct. 23 elections is that the democrats must move together, united toward elections. What that formula is, however, is not yet clear,” she said.

Political scientist Ghazi Gheriari of Tunis University noted that one alliance of leftist parties, the Democratic Political Axis, only won seats in the capital and among the expatriate community in France.

“The opposition has little penetration into the Tunisian countryside,” he said. “The results of this election showed two Tunisias: a Tunisia in tune with the opposition where it did respectably and the countryside where this opposition is not credible and has no voice.”

In the past two weeks, a new political party known as Nida Tunis or Tunisia’s Call, has appeared, led by Caid Beiji Essebsi, who at 85 years old embodies the phrase “veteran politician” with years of service under Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba.

He was the country’s interim prime minister from March 2011 until the elections and has said that his new party will reunite the opposition and restore balance to the nation’s politics.

“We called on the other parties to create the conditions allowing the alternation of power but they didn’t do enough,”he said, “so we have created a movement open to all political forces in the country.”