The campaign for the first elections born of the revolts that swept the Middle East began in Tunisia on Saturday, featuring 81 political parties in a country where more than 90 percent of the vote used to be awarded to just one.
Tunisians are electing a constitutional assembly after overthrowing their long-ruling leader President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January following a month-long popular uprising that inspired similar movements in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere and has remade the face of the Arab world.
While the past nine months have seen further demonstrations, local unrest and a rise in crime across this North African nation of 10 million, many hope the elections will bring stability.
Tunisia’s experiment with democracy after a half-century of autocratic rule will be closely watched ─ and monitored by dozens of observers ─ for its impact on the rest of the region.
“The elections should take place under favorable conditions, but we are ready for any eventuality,” said Kamel Jendoubi, the head of the commission overseeing elections.
Security officials say that all forces will be mobilized to ensure stability during the elections.
“We have no concerns for the security of the electoral process, and we have a lot of reason to be optimistic,” Michael Gahler, the head of the European observer mission, said on a visit to the country.
Since El Abidine’s fall, what was once one of the most repressive country’s in the Arab world has seen an explosion of political activity, with the formation of 111 political parties.
In a country where the Interior Ministry ─ the former election-monitor, since relieved of its duties ─ used to award more than 90 percent of the vote to the ruling party, the diversity of choice is staggering: 81 parties will be competing in the election to make up 785 lists; another 676 lists are composed of independent candidates. They’re competing for 217 seats.
Those elected will then have a year to write a constitution to dictate how Tunisians will govern themselves before elections for a parliament will be held.
Three weeks before the elections, polls have shown that at least half of the country’s 7 million voters remain undecided, something candidates will be looking to address with of meetings around the country to present their program.
The front-runners in the election are the well-organized moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, which has polled around the fifth of the electorate, and the center left Progressive Democratic Party with around 10 percent support.
As befitting a democratic experiment that was launched with the help of online social media, there are number of guides on the web to educate voters on the myriad candidates and parties.
Sites such as TuniVote, Ajidoo.com, and Ikhtiartounes.org seek to compare the political programs of the parties and help voters choose their candidates.
“The success of the democratic transition in Tunisia will have a positive impact on the democratic experiments in the rest of the Arab world,” said Karl Lamers, president of NATO’s parliamentary assembly, while in Tunis.