Turnout high as Tunisians now believe vote has meaning

While campaigning in Tunisia focused on the role of religion in public life, voters talk about jobs and standard of living.

Manoubia Bouazizi holds a ballot paper with a list of election candidates at a polling station in Tunisia Sunday. She is the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the man who set himself on fire in an act of protest that inspired the Arab Spring.
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TUNIS // They came in their topcoats and jellabas, neckties and headscarves, standing together in the streets as they had nine months ago when a dictator fell and history turned a page.

"In the past there was no point in voting," said Kheira Chihi, 38, a management assistant at a Tunis law office. "Now there is."

Yesterday Mrs Chihi was among hundreds who lined up at a Tunis primary school-turned-polling station in national assembly elections that mark a key step from revolution towards democracy.

Kamel Jendoubi, head of the electoral commission, said turnout was "over 60 per cent and close to 70 per cent" by 4pm, three hours before the polls closed. That was above expectations.

He told reporters there was no violence, but some "soft" intimidation of voters, such as street demonstrations and people continuing to campaign on voting day, which is against the rules. Some parties had received warnings, but he did not name them. Results might not come until today or Tuesday.

Political parties had cast the elections as a battle for Tunisia's identity. Voters also stressed the urgent need for jobs and development, while savouring their country's first-ever free polls.

"Tunisians used not to be interested in politics," Mrs Chihi said, pressed into a school corridor with other voters en route to voting booths. "Then January 14 happened."

On that day, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after weeks of street protests, sparking a wave of revolt that has toppled leaders in Egypt and Libya and threatens to bring down Arab autocrats elsewhere.

Yesterday's vote and its outcome stand to offer new lessons.

Interim authorities have worked to mount transparent polls from scratch, while the new national assembly must balance party rivalries to set up a government capable of pushing through political and economic reforms.

The swift rise of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, expected to top yesterday's vote, has alarmed secularists who accuse it of harbouring a radical agenda.

Yet while campaigning has focused on the role of religion in public life, voters yesterday talked about more pressing concerns.

"We need the parties to be thinking about creating jobs," said Mrs Chihi, who planned to vote for the Communist Party of Tunisian Workers. "I'm not so bothered by issues like the hijab."

Steady economic growth figures in recent years masked widening wealth gaps, high unemployment and rampant corruption - blights that helped drive the protests that toppled Ben Ali.

The ensuing turmoil of revolution has spooked investors and crippled Tunisia's key tourism industry, fuelling fears for the economy.

Such fears run deep in Sidi Yahcine, a rundown suburb of Tunis where locals gathered at a school complex yesterday to vote - or at least to make the attempt.

"I just hope the elections can get me a job," said Amer Benomar, 55, an out-of-work day labourer. "I'm not registered yet and I don't know much about the parties, but maybe someone inside can help me."

White blockish buildings surrounded a courtyard where would-be voters mobbed election officials in frantic attempts to register at the last minute.

"There's no organisation, and too many people," said Abbas Jamai, 25, who sells clothes in the nearby market. "Some people have just gone home without voting."

Initial slowness to register by many of Tunisia's 7.2 million eligible voters forced election officials to extend the summer registration period.

While the turnout demonstrated enthusiasm for the election, "the bad news is that it has overwhelmed some polling centres," said Les Campbell, who is helping lead election observers from the National Democratic Institute, a US pro-democracy NGO.

In the Sidi Yahcine polling centre, director Mohamed Gentassi found himself surrounded by people fearful of losing their chance to vote.

"We want to register everyone, but we can only do it if you can show proof of living in Sidi Yahcine," he said.

"I showed them my ID card but they said my name's not on the list," shouted one man, thrusting his card at Mr Gentassi.

Mr Gentassi said that an extra 20 election officials were on the way to help register voters.

"People need to be patient," said university graduate Imane Dhabib, 25, watching the scrum from a balcony. "It took me 30 minutes to register today. We can sacrifice 30 minutes for something this important."

Ms Dhabib voted for Ennahda, citing the party's record of withstanding persecution by Ben Ali's regime. Mr Jamai, meanwhile, voted Ennahda because "Islam is our religion, and this is an Arab country," he said.

Far across Tunis from Sidi Yahcine, in a primary school in the beachside suburb of La Goulette, a 27-year-old computer engineer named Mehdi Romdhani also voted for Ennahda.

"But no one party can solve problems alone," he said. "I think people are mature enough to know that identity is not the main issue. The priority is getting the economy in order."

Nine months ago, young men torched La Goulette's main police station as Ben Ali fled. Yesterday, perhaps, some of the same young men were among the hundreds of voters queued patiently beneath the school arcades.

"The elections are a first step toward a constitution, the building of a new Tunisia," Mr Romdhani said. "They're a blueprint."


with additional reporting by Associated Press