|The election campaign for the country’s first democratic vote entered its last day on Friday [AFP]|
TUNIS, Tunisia – The streets of downtown Tunis were calm on Friday morning, as the election campaign for the country’s first democratic election entered its last day.
Voters are going to the polls to elect a constituent assembly, a body that will be tasked with deciding what kind of political system the country will have, writing a new constitution, and appointing a new government to replace the interim government.
Voting for Tunisians living abroad began on Thursday, with the first vote being cast in Melbourne, Australia. Overseas voting will continue until Saturday.
Election day inside Tunisia is on Sunday, and the results are expected to be announced the following day.
The ISIE, the Tunisia electoral authority created earlier in the year to oversee the electoral process, has introduced strict rules to govern campaigning. Some, such as the ban on campaign advertising ahead of the official campaign period (October 1-21), were introduced only weeks ahead of the election.
Beji Caid Essebsi, the interim prime minister, stirred controversy at the beginning of the official campaign when, in an interview with The New York Times, he said he would like to continue as a member of the next government.
Essebsi is a member of the old guard – he was a minister in the government of former president, Habib Bourguiba – and his comments revived fears of a “counterrevolution”.
While the campaign has been largely peaceful, there are fears that the vote might be manipulated in some way, or that the interim government might refuse to hand over power.
In a meeting on Thursday, al-Nahda, the pro-democratic Islamist party headed by Rachid Ghannouchi that polled highly in the run-up to the election, warned that if the party suspected the election results were rigged, they would take to the streets.
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Tunisia’s democratic transition is being watched throughout the region, with many considering it a trial case for genuine democracy in the Arab world.
Most parties have accentuated the Mediterranean country’s Arab-Muslim identity throughout the campaign, although the role that religion should play in political life has been controversial.
Other successful democracies in the Muslim world include Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Al-Nahda looks towards Turkey as a model Tunisia could follow, because of the balance struck between Muslim identity and political pluralism.
“Ghannouchi is both attracted by the Turkish model because it works, and it’s accepted by other forces and he’s attracted to it because it’s the logical conclusion of the position he took up many many years ago,” George Joffe, a North Africa specialist at who is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, explained.
Role of religion
The last attempt at democracy in the North Africa region came in neighbouring Algeria after protests in 1988 forced the regime there to legalise opposition parties and allow for a democratic election, but the blossoming of political pluralism was cut short by a coup d’état that led to a decade long bloody civil war.
There were grave human rights abuses committed by both the military regime and some of those claiming to defend the cause of political Islam.
Tunisia is a very different case, not least because the former regime is arguably no longer in place and the Tunisian military is far weaker.
The schism between those who would like religion to play a more important role in public life, and those who want to limit the influence of religion, has been noted by many, however.
Al-Nahda has clearly learned from the Algerian example and has led a tightly managed campaign, repeatedly stressing the party’s opposition to violence and its acceptance of democratic values.
“What happened in Algeria has reconfirmed our belief that violence never achieves anything that is good,” Ghannouchi told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of the election.
“Even if this choice of opting for peaceful political engagement doesn’t bear fruit very quickly, we believe that in the longterm, it is good for the people and for the country.”