Tunisians vote in first real test for Arab Spring
A SHARPLY divided but overwhelmingly enthusiastic Tunisia went to the polls yesterday, the country that opened the path to a year of revolutions putting the Arab Spring to its first democratic test.
Last night, election officials said that turnout had passed 70pc two hours before the voting booths closed and had been above 80pc in some areas.
Long queues lined up across the country. Ennahda, the Islamist party, has been predicted to emerge as the strongest single party when the count is declared tomorrow, with as much as 40pc of the vote.
But in a sign of how divisive its message of putting an end to half a century of nationalist, aggressively secular rule has been, its leader Rached Ghannouchi was jeered and heckled after he cast his ballot in Tunis, with opponents shouting that he was a "terrorist".
Mr Ghannouchi lived in exile in London for 19 years until the overthrow of President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January.
When Mr Ghannouchi attempted to head straight into the polling booth he was stopped by fellow voters. "The queue, the queue -- democracy starts here," they shouted, forcing him to join the queue.
The vote will appoint a president and an interim parliament that will govern for a year and decide a new constitution.
The range of parties demonstrates the desire for change but also the difficulty the system will have in constructing clear political lines.
There were 110 parties to choose from as well as independents, represented by more than 11,000 candidates for the 218-seat parliament. Each list has to comprise 50pc women, in an attempt to ward off fears that the revolution will end Tunisia's reputation as the Arab world's most progressive state.
Among those who voted were the family of Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit-and-vegetable seller who killed himself by setting himself on fire last December after having his cart confiscated. That event turned into nationwide protests and then a movement that toppled his own president and spread across the region.
"All night, I thought of my brother . . . thanks to whom Tunisians are voting freely," his brother Salem said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)