Historic Tunisian election ends; vote counting begins

The counting of votes in Tunisia's first free elections got underway Sunday evening, after a successful poll coming nine months after the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, DPA reported.

It was characterized by a massive turnout.

The participation "surpassed all expectations," the chief of the independent election authority, Kamal Jendoubi, said. Jendoubi estimated turnout at around 70 per cent. Polling stations closed at 7 pm (1800 GMT). In some places hundreds of people were still waiting to vote.

The mood was euphoric as people lined up to elected a 217-member assembly, which will write a new constitution and appoint a new interim government.

Many Tunisians were voting for the first time, having skipped elections under the now-exiled Ben Ali or his predecessor, independence leader Habib Bourguiba, because of systemic vote rigging.

The proliferation of political parties and candidates in recent months left some voters stumped. More than 100 parties are competing in the election. Some people were also confused about where to vote.

Only about 55 per cent of eligible voters registered on time. The rest were directed to designated stations.

"This is my first time to vote. Before, the results were always known before the polling stations even opened," said Sonia, a 38-year-old university lecturer, who voted in the upmarket El Menzah district of Tunis.

She voted for the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the biggest opposition party in the days of Ben Ali.

The PDP campaigned as a secular alternative to the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which was banned under Ben Ali and has enjoyed a huge surge in support since January.

"The most important thing is that we have balance in the constituent assembly," said Sonia.

The brother of Mohammed Bouazizi - the fruit vendor who sparked the uprising that toppled Ben Ali by fatally setting himself alight to protest police harassment in the central town of Sidi Bouzid - said he had voted for Ennahda.

"I'm voting for Ennahda because it's the party that represents Islamic values," Salem Bouazizi told dpa by telephone from the city of Sfax.

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi hailed the election as "historic."

"I'm 70 years old and it's my first time to vote," Ghannouchi, who spent 11 years in prison and 20 years in exile for his political activities, told dpa.

"I expect our movement to get the best result. But we will congratulate whoever wins, even if it's not Ennahda," he said after voting, also in El Menzah.

Opinion polls show Ennahda winning between 20 and 30 per cent of the vote, more than any other party, causing concern among some Tunisians, who fear the country's secular, liberal tradition could be under threat.

Ghannouchi has assured Ennahda is committed to gender equality and civil liberties. But some factions within the party advocate a more religious agenda, leading critics to accuse the party of doublespeak.

As he left the polling station, Ghannouchi came under attack from hundreds of anti-Islamist voters who shouted at him to "degage" (French for "get lost") - a slogan that was used against Ben Ali - and telling him to "return to London." He did not react.

More than 11,000 candidates are running for the assembly on 1,519 lists. About half of the lists were put together by parties. The rest were constituted by independents.

Apart from Ennahda and the PDP, the only other parties to have a national profile are Ettakatol, a social-democratic party led by a doctor; Ettajdid, formerly the Tunisian communist party; and the Congress for the Republic, also a leftist party.

An estimated 500 foreign election observers have been deployed to monitor the poll, which continues through 7 pm (1800 GMT).

The first results are expected Sunday evening, but the final result is not expected until Monday.

Tunisia's month-long Jasmine Revolution was driven by frustration over state repression, corruption and unemployment.

While corruption has diminished and curbs on political and press freedom have been lifted, the economic picture is still bleak.

An estimated 700,000 people in the country of 10.6 million are jobless.

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