Tunisia′s Islamists look set to score high in elections | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 23.10.2011
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Tunisia's Islamists look set to score high in elections

As the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is something of a yardstick in the region. All eyes will be on the North African country on Sunday when it stages its first post-revolution elections.

A man kisses the Tunisian flag

For the love of Tunisia - for the first time in decades voters get to have their say

After decades of polls in which the results were a foregone conclusion, Tunisians are now poised to take part in a democratic ballot to elect an assembly responsible for drawing up a new constitution.

But with more than 100 parties and 1,400 candidates - 583 of which are independents and almost all of which have been campaigning on platforms of freedom, democracy and social justice - in the running, voters could easily be overcome by choice paralysis.

Middle East expert at the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs Asiem El Difraoui told Deutsche Welle it is quite normal to see so many parties and candidates standing for election after a 30-year dictatorship.

"There is no culture of political compromise in Tunisia," he said. "But ultimately larger political groupings will be formed."

Political Islam

Analysts expect the 217-member assembly to be comprised of representatives from 10 or so parties. Besides writing the new constitution, they will be charged with appointing a caretaker government to oversee the running of the country during the drafting phase, and with organizing fresh elections thereafter.

A Tunisian walking past election posters

The Tunisian electorate is spoilt for choice

The Islamic Ennahda party, which was repressed under the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, is tipped to win the largest block of votes in the ballot for which only half the country's 7.3 million eligible voters have registered to take part.

In the run-up to the poll, Ennahda has been vocal on its commitment to democratic principles and women's rights.

Secret agenda fears

Although some observers see the party as a chance for a moderate form of political Islam, secular critics say Ennahda is simply talking the talk and would waste no time in imposing a theocracy, with no regard for the personal status code introduced into Tunisia in 1956.

The rules of the Code, which broke new ground in the Middle East, set a minimum age for wedlock, stated that both parties to a marriage had to be consenting, forbade polygamy, abolished a wife's obligation to be obedient to her husband, and instituted a legal procedure for divorce.

A Salafist covered from head to toe, carries a sign

Salafists demonstrate to defend the right for women to cover up

Fears of a hidden Ennahda agenda have been fueled by Salafist conservative attacks on television stations and cinemas they claim show material that is offensive to Muslims.

The most recent such incident occurred at the weekend, but the party has denied any involvement.

Party split

Nonetheless, Klaus Loetzer, head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung office for Tunisia and Algeria says there are different ideologies within the Islamic party.

"Some are more interested in following the Turkish model, and want the division of church and state," he told Deutsche Welle, adding that others seek unity between the two. "They want shari'ah as a basis for governance and the country's legal framework."

Human rights activist have called for protest action to prevent what they describe as the "bearded men" from taking power.

Main contenders

One of the other two main groupings comprises the young revolutionaries so pivotal in ousting the apparently entrenched dictator 10 months ago. They want a highly modern Tunisia, but have no experience of party politics.

Not so the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) which was in opposition during Ben Ali's era. Although leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi was a staunch critic of the former dictator, the party is perceived as the unofficial successor to his Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD).

Nejib Chebbi

Nejib Chebbi's PDP is expected to take a large share of votes

Opinion polls suggest that many Tunisians who are planning to vote, have yet to decide which way to cast their ballot. But so far, the PDP looks set to garner the second largest share.

Economic struggles

Whoever emerges victorious on Sunday will have their work cut out for them. The Tunisian economy has suffered greatly as a result of the political upheaval, not least because tourists are giving the country a wider than usual berth. And jobs are still in short supply.

El Difraoui says the biggest challenge facing any caretaker government will be to improve the general standard of living and to "quickly improve the economic situation."

And for the first time in decades, the people who are affected by the laws of the land, have the chance to influence the way things go from here.

Author: Anne Allmeling / tkw
Editor: Rob Mudge

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