Tunisia counts votes in historic free election

Tunisians have voted in their first truly free elections.

Tunisian election officials are counting votes after Sunday's election, the first free poll of the Arab Spring.

More than 90% of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots, officials say.

Tunisians are electing a 217-seat assembly that will draft a constitution and appoint an interim president, who will choose the new government.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda is expected to win the most votes but fall short of a majority in the new body.

"We are not far from 40% [of the vote] - it could be a bit more or a bit less," Samir Dilou, a senior member of Ennahda, told AFP news agency.

The US and EU have praised Tunisia on the peaceful election process, with President Barack Obama saying the vote was "an important step forward".

Former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown nine months ago after mass demonstrations - he had been in power for 23 years.

Electoral commission secretary-general Boubaker Bethabet said more than 90% of the 4.1 million registered citizens had voted. No turnout figures were available for another 3.1 million unregistered people who also had the right to vote.

'A step forward'

Across the country on Sunday, queues stretching for hundreds of metres formed outside polling stations from early in the morning.

At the scene

They stood patiently and quietly in line for hours, waiting to vote. "We are suffering in this hot sun," one man told me. "But it is a beautiful kind of suffering". I asked another who he thought would win. "We are all going to win. This is a free election. It means we have already won".

For most it is the first time in their lives that they have voted in a free election. Tunisians know their emerging democracy carries a huge burden of expectation. Success here will resonate across the Arab world. But you sense an immense popular will to succeed. The cheerful public optimism is irresistible.

The Islamist Ennahda party is expected to emerge as the largest single group in the constitutional assembly.

Opponents have tried to paint the Islamists as extremists, but the campaign appears not to have worked. In poorer, more religiously conservative areas, men and women formed separate queues to vote. In these neighbourhoods, the religious parties are expected to do well.

Polling stations began to close at 19:00 (18:00 GMT) but people still queuing at that time were being allowed to stay and cast their vote, AFP said.

With large numbers of ballot papers to count, election officials said results were expected on Monday or possibly later.

In a statement issued by the White House on Sunday, Mr Obama congratulated Tunisia on the election.

"Just as so many Tunisian citizens protested peacefully in streets and squares to claim their rights, today they stood in lines and cast their votes to determine their own future," he said.

The European Union also praised the elections and promised to support the new authorities.

More than 100 parties had registered to participate in the elections, along with a number of independent candidates.

Hundreds of foreign election observers and thousands of local ones monitored the poll and will be watching the vote counting.

This democratic moment carries an enormous burden of expectation, not just in Tunisia but across the Arab world, says the BBC's Allan Little, in the capital, Tunis.

Tunisians led the Arab Spring; they know the world will be watching this key stage in the transition, he says.

'Born again'

Many voters emerged from polling stations holding up blue-stained index fingers - proud to show they had cast their ballots.

Tunisia poll at a glance

  • First election since Arab Spring
  • More than 100 parties contesting poll
  • Voters electing 217-member Constituent Assembly (CA) to write constitution and choose prime minister
  • CA expected to have highest female representation in Arab world
  • Election organised under proportional representation system
  • Non-registered voters with ID cards entitled to vote
  • Tunisians in some foreign countries given the vote
  • Islamist Ennahda party expected to get most votes

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation last December triggered the Tunisian revolt, told the Reuters news agency the election was a victory for dignity and freedom.

"Now I am happy that my son's death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice," Manoubia Bouazizi said. "I'm an optimist, I wish success for my country."

Unlike its eastern neighbour Libya, Tunisia's transition from authoritarian rule has been largely peaceful.

Mr Ben Ali fled Tunisia on 14 January amid the first of several mass uprisings across the Arab world.

However, in the nine months since then, the economy has worsened as business and tourists stay away.

Campaigning in Tunisia was marked by concerns over splits between Islamists and secularists, party funding and voter apathy.

Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, has sought to allay the fears of Tunisian secularists by stating its commitment to democracy and women's rights.

Its closest challenger is expected to be the secular, centrist Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

The new assembly is expected to draft a new constitution within a year.

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