- - Sunday, October 23, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia — Ten months after they sparked a revolution that spread to become the Arab Spring, Tunisians went to the polls Sunday in elections widely seen as a test for the small North African nation and the entire region.

Voters formed long lines that were peaceful but slow-moving. Yet Tunisians said they did not mind the wait after more than two decades of dictatorship.

“I felt like I was writing this country’s history,” said Fethi Harzli, a 48-year-old civil engineering technician, after he voted.

Tunisians toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, forcing him to flee after 23 years in power. Their revolutions inspired Egyptians, who ousted President Hosni Mubarak a month later.

The Arab Spring spread to Libya, which finally killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi last week, and in several other Arab nations. Protesters in Syria and Yemen are still facing deadly reprisals from defiant autocrats determined to cling to power.

In their election Sunday, Tunisians chose from an astronomical 10,937 candidates of all stripes to take the 217 seats in a new assembly. The legislature will be charged with writing the country’s constitution within one year and appointing an interim government until new elections are set.

Results of the vote are expected early this week. The party expected to win the largest share is the long-banned Islamists, Ennahda. However, it is unlikely to gain control over the assembly because of proportional representation.

Many voters waiting in line at the polls in the Tunisian capital said want a new government to end corruption and create jobs. They added that they did not care who was chosen, as long as the election was fair and transparent.

“We hope these elections will change the future of this country,” said Ines, 21.

She said she and her mother, Raoudha, would vote for the Democratic Modernist Axis Party, while her sister, Meriam, 23, chose the Progressive Democratic Party.

“We want human rights and women’s rights to be preserved and the economic system reformed,” said Meriam.

Naceur Fathallah, 59, who has been living in France for four decades, came back to Tunisia to vote for the first time and “to smell the scent and feel the ambiance” of this day.

“I am so proud of this country where I am seeing the signs of a surely emerging democracy,” he said.

Others expressed concern.

“I am scared. There are too many parties, too many voters,” said one woman who identified herself as Fatima. “A few weeks ago, I was optimistic, but now I don’t know what we will get. There has been a lot of tension here.”

More than 500 international observers and thousands of trained local election monitors kept their eyes on the polls to prevent voting fraud, intimidation or manipulation of the results. Tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers were deployed across the country as well as outside polls to prevent violence.

Sunday’s vote had little of the chaos or voter apathy that many expected. Kamel Jendoubi, head of the electoral commission, said turnout was close to 70 percent of Tunisia’s 7.5 million voters a few hours before the polls closed, surpassing all expectations.

Since overthrowing Mr. Ben Ali, Tunisians have worked to create governing institutions to lay the foundations for a multiparty democracy. They established and independent electoral commission and went from one-party rule under Mr. Ben Ali to more than 110 political parties.

“It has been surprising the way parties have shown a great maturity in mobilizing the public, fundraising, organizing meetings and rallies,” said Hedi Zaouchi, professor of political science and media at University of Jendouba in northwest Tunisia.

Nine months ago on the streets of Tunisia, the messages scrawled on walls read: “We will die for our freedom.” Nine months later, they say: “Get out and vote.”

“The past is still within us,” said Ghaylen Najjar, 37, a professor of English. “But this morning we dipped our fingers in the future.”



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