Tunisian seculars claim lead in historic vote

Parliamentary election posters are seen in Kasserine October 23, 2014.

Parliamentary election posters are seen in Kasserine October 23, 2014.

As authorities continue to count ballots cast in Tunisia’s historic parliamentary elections, the country’s main secular coalition claimed an early victory over the once-dominant Islamist Ennahda party.

While official results will not be revealed before Wednesday, Nida Tunis (Tunisia’s Call), a group of secular parties, claimed, based on their own research, they came in first.

The rival Ennahda party warned against jumping to conclusions as it remained optimistic about its own future, the Associated Press reported.

An estimated 60 percent of the 5.2 million registered voters cast their ballot to elect the 217-member parliament, also tasked with choosing a new prime minister.

Beji Caid Essebsi, the 87-year-old leader of Nida Tunis, said soon after polls closed that “there are positive signs we may be first” with a large margin of seats.

His prediction was backed by exit polls conducted by the private Tunisia-based Sigma Conseil institute, which gave his party 37 percent of the 217-seat body, with just 26 percent to Ennahda.

“Based on our observations, we are optimistic,” said Yusra Ghannouchi, a party spokeswoman, who described the Nida Tunis announcement as “irresponsible.”

U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the elections calling the process a “historic political transition.”

Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, has been held up as a beacon of hope compared with other chaos-hit countries like Libya and Egypt, where regimes were also toppled.

Tunisia’s uprising in 2011 sparked a series of protests that ousted several long-reigning Arab autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

While the small North African country did not go through the unrest its neighbours continue to suffer from, it did face similar tensions over Islamist versus more secular rule.

However, several different parties are also participating in the race, ranging from conservative Islamist Salafists to Socialists, raising speculation that a coalition government is the probable outcome.

Ennahda dominated Tunisia’s last post-uprising parliament but were later forced into a deal to step down following a crisis over their rule and the murder of two secular leaders.

Criticized for economic mismanagement and lax handling of hardline Islamists, Ennahda leaders say they learned from their mistakes in the early years after the revolution.

But Nidaa Tounes, which includes some former members of the Ben Ali regime, see themselves as modern technocrats able manage economic and security challenges after the messy period of Islamist-led rule.

“Ennahda are the only party we can rely on after the revolution, despite the mistakes they made,” said Hatem Kamessi, sports teacher attending an Ennahda rally in Tunis.

“After the first election, they didn’t have the experience,” he told Reuters.

Familar faces

Some of the secular parties are led by members of Ben Ali’s former regime who insist they were simply technocrats and were not tainted by the corruption and abuses associated with his regime.

Their return reflects the kind of compromise and consensus that has helped Tunisia avoid confrontations seen in Libya and Egypt where disagreements over the role of Islamists and former regime officials have erupted into violence.

That compromise and a proportional electoral system mean the two main players will seek deals with minor partners to form a majority in parliament and have a stronger say in forming the new government.

“In this context, the two biggest parties – Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes – will probably set aside their ideological differences and work together to form a national unity government,” Riccardo Fabiani at Eurasia Group said.

A voter raises her ink-stained finger after casting her vote at a polling station in Tunis October 26, 2014.

A voter raises her ink-stained finger after casting her vote at a polling station in Tunis October 26, 2014.


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