Rural Tunisia angry after some poll results overturned

Violence this week in Tunisia illustrates the economic woes facing the next government, with post-election riots erupting over annulled victories by a party that had promised poor people a free ride - literally.

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TUNIS // Violence this week in Tunisia illustrated the economic woes facing the next government, with post-election riots erupting over annulled victories by a party that had promised poor people a free ride - literally.

Soldiers fired warning shots yesterday to disperse crowds attacking police stations in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, wracked since Thursday by angry protests.

Violence broke out after officials cancelled gains in national assembly elections last Sunday by the Popular Petition party over alleged campaign finance violations.

The party quickly withdrew from the assembly.

The Popular Petition rose by pledging a lavish welfare state against a backdrop of economic malaise. After controversy over the party fades, curing that malaise will remain a key challenge on Tunisia's path to democracy.

The path to free elections began 10 months ago when a poor vegetable seller in Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in desperation after years of harassment by local officials.

His gesture sparked protests that overturned the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled Tunisia in January.

Last Sunday, Tunisians turned out en masse to vote in the country's first free elections.

The national assembly that emerged from the election would form a fresh interim government and draft a new constitution.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party came in first, capturing 90 of 217 seats. Second place went to the secularist Congress for the Republic (CPR), while the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known by its Arabic name, Ettakatol, came in third.

But preliminary election results that trickled out district by district also revealed a dark horse.

Results leaked on Monday showed the little-known Popular Petition, led by the wealthy expatriate Hachmi Hamdi, taking up to 90 per cent of votes at some polling centres in Sidi Bouzid.

"He promised free transport, free health care, large investments and money for poor people," said Rachid Fettini, a businessman in Sidi Bouzid. "No one had ever promised things like that before."

Few parties seemed to perceive a threat in Mr Hamdi, who owns a television station and lives in London, where he remained for most of his campaign.

The swift rise of Ennahda after years of persecution by Mr Ben Ali's regime focused political debate on the role of religion in public life. Mr Hamdi, meanwhile, was talking about something else.

Armed with campaign volunteers and his television station, Al Mustakillah, Mr Hamdi promised universal health care, unemployment benefits, free transport for people over age 65 and manufacturing plants in depressed cities neglected by Mr Ben Ali's regime.

To fund the schemes, he proposed taxing the travel industry, large companies and anyone earning more than 100,000 dinars (Dh262,000), he said in an interview with Tunisia Live, a news website.

Final election results on Thursday showed the Popular Petition came fourth, with 19 assembly seats. But the election commission struck down its victories in six districts, including Sidi Bouzid.

Mr Hamdi said on Thursday that the party was leaving the national assembly entirely.

By Thursday night, a mob converged on the local office of the election committee, said Mr Fettini. Finding it guarded by soldiers, protesters instead set fire to the nearby mayor's office and courthouse, Mr Fettini and wire services said.

Protesters also ransacked an Ennahda campaign office, starting a fire inside, and clashed with police who fired tear gas in bids to drive them off, Reuters reported.

Anger had festered all week in Sidi Bouzid at perceived slights against the town by commentators on Tunisian media, including Ennahda activists, for having backed Mr Hamdi, said Mr Fettini, who voted neither for Ennahda nor for the Popular Petition.

"The invalidation of the Popular Petition lists just restarted things," he said. "They're angry at that, and they feel insulted by Ennahda."

After Sunday's elections, Ennahda's leader, Rached Ghannouchi, praised the town as the birthplace of Tunisia's revolution.

"We salute Sidi Bouzid and its sons who launched the spark and we hope God will have made Mohamed Bouazizi a martyr," he said.

Yesterday, shops were closed in Sidi Bouzid and much of the town was on strike, according to Mr Fettini. Stone-throwing protesters clashed with police and helicopters circled overhead.

In Tunis, Ennahda and other parties who scored high on Sunday have begun talks on forming a government. Ennahda has said it wants a liberal business environment and a convertible currency to speed economic growth.

In Sidi Bouzid yesterday, Mr Fettini described a bleaker vista.

"There are tyres burning in Mohamed Bouazizi square," Mr Fettini said. "The whole place has been sacked. The crowd is yelling 'Bread and water and no Ennahda'."