MAJOR TEST FOR ARAB SPRING WITH TUNISIAN VOTE
THE Arab Spring faces its first major democratic test today when Tunisians vote in a legislative election that could shape the future of political Islam in the Middle East for years.
Campaigning ended on Friday night with polls showing that the moderately Islamist Ennhada party remains on course to capture a quarter of the seats in a constitutional assembly.
The expected emergence of Ennhada as the largest party in the assembly, which will rewrite the constitution and usher in formal parliamentary and presidential elections, has caused disquiet in many parts of a profoundly secular country.
Middle-class Tunisians speak of their fears that the equality and social liberalism for which their nation is famed are now in jeopardy.
But Western diplomats remain hopeful that, just as Tunisia blazed a trail by becoming the first Arab country to throw off its dictator, it can also prove that Islam and democracy are not incompatible in the Arab world.
Rached Ghannouchi, Ennhada's leader, has promised that his party will remain faithful to the guiding principles of the Arab Spring, protecting the freedoms for which scores of people died during the revolt to oust Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who has sought sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. "Tunisia will be a democratic society, a model for the Arab world," he promised last week.
Ennhada also points to the fact that it will not muster enough of the vote to command an absolute majority.
With the election being conducted on the basis of strict proportional representation -- with women numbering half the candidates -- secular parties will be a major political force. They could even form a coalition that sends the Islamists into opposition.
Importantly, the campaign has been largely peaceful -- itself an important precedent for when Libya and Egypt, the two other Arab states to have thrown off their leaders, hold elections over the next year.