From Arab Spring to elections: Tunisia steps into a new era

The previously banned Islamist party, Al Nahda, is leading the opinion polls and is pitching a moderate, pluralist agenda

As she browses a wall plastered with photos of election candidates, Ameni, a 21-year-old student at Carthage University in Tunis, is preparing to take on a new responsibility. "It's a major turning point," she says. "I feel like a real citizen for the first time."

For Ameni and more than 10 million other Tunisians, the vote in elections this Sunday is their first experience of democratic election. Decades of despotic rule ended in January this year when Tunisia's revolution brought down President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. This small North African country sparked a string of revolutions in the Middle East – and now it is the first to put democracy to the test at the polling booth.

"I never voted. I never imagined that I would," says 62-year-old Mohamad Ali Mahfoudh, a magazine proof-reader in Tunis. "Before, there was no point [voting] as the elections were faked."

Like others, Mr Mahfoudh takes his time to survey the campaign posters along Avenue Habib Bourguiba – Tunisia's central artery, named after the nation's first president after independence from French rule. The street is itself a collage of recent history. At its central square, a giant clock monument that once commemorated 7 November 1987, when Ben Ali seized power, has now been renamed to honour 14 January, the day of his fall. To one side, barbed wire, army tanks and riot police protect the loathed interior ministry building – home to the state police whose brutal repression helped trigger the revolution. No one has yet been put on trial after about 300 pro-democracy protesters were killed in the January uprising. Underneath lies what locals say is a vast underground prison that once held hundreds of political prisoners.

Tunisians face a choice of more than 100 new political parties, and about 11,000 candidates are vying for 217 seats. The winners will form an assembly to write the county's new constitution over the next year and appoint a transitional government.

Tunisia's previously banned Islamist party, Al Nahda (renaissance), is leading the opinion polls with 25 per cent of the vote. Better organised and funded than its rivals, the party is pitching a moderate, pluralist agenda, but liberal and secular parties worry that it will impose religious restrictions on a nation proud of its socially liberal society and the most progressive women's rights in the region.

Ameni says she is thinking of voting for the party but is put off by possible future alliances between Al Nahda, whose moderate politics she likes, and the rigidly conservative Salafists.

Other parties include the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), an established secular party with about 16 per cent support; Ettakol, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, a centre-left party founded in 1984 and now level with the PDP; and the Congress Party for the Republic, another centre-left party with a civil liberties platform and 8 per cent support.

Fears remain that the elections may still not be genuinely free, despite the presence of 10,000 observers. "There will be no fraud inside the polling stations," says Alaeddine Saidi, a 40-year-old economics professor in Tunis. "But there is manipulation and attempts to bribe and buy influence outside."

Successful elections could dispel Western suspicions that Arabs are immune to democracy and inspire neighbouring pro-democracy movements. For Tunisia, says Mr Mahfoudh, "it's definitely going to be better than it was."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
Life and Style
love + sex
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United 1 player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot