Huge turnout as Tunisia rejoices at first free election

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The Independent Online

Minutes away from the polling station where Haytham Agrouti voted is the Tunis square on which he, like thousands of others, took part in the protests that brought down a hated regime earlier this year. "Things have changed so much," said the 22-year-old student at Tunis University. "I never imagined back then that I would be voting today."

Those words probably echoed across Tunisia yesterday, as the population queued, sometimes for hours, at polling booths and emerged wearing smiles and fingers dipped in the indelible blue ink that indicated they had voted. These were the country's first free elections and for many, the first time they were taking part. One 35-year-old man emerging from a polling booth said: "Whatever happens next, I feel like now, I exist."

Some 60 per cent of eligible Tunisians were predicted to vote, but the head of the country's electoral commission yesterday said the turnout had "exceeded all expectations" and reached 70 per cent. Around Tunis, there was a celebratory air with cars and voters draped in flags, and cries of "long live Tunisia".

At Bardo, a middle-class suburb of northern Tunis, home to the Tunisian government, the queues snaked around the courtyard and into the street. "It's a historic moment," said Lamia Tliba, 35, a teacher. "I'll wait all day if I have to."

An election official moved between voters, giving directions and answering questions.

In the impoverished north-western Tunis suburb of Sidi Hcine, the process seemed less organised, as crowds of voters found they weren't registered at one polling station and were directed to another. "But I wasn't registered there, either," said Harjer Aza, 21, who spent hours between polling stations yesterday. "I have to vote. I'm not leaving until I do."

There were some complaints of attempted vote-buying and the appearance of deceased relatives on voter lists – while the electoral commission said it issued warnings over parties that continued to campaign on election day, which was against the rules. But most voters in Tunis were reporting a fair election process: "There was no pressure, no cheating and my vote was secret, as it should be," said Hamid Lofti, 35, at a polling station in Tunis. Some 10,000 observers were recruited to monitor the elections and army guards were securing every polling station.

The moderate Islamic party Ennahda is expected to come out ahead in the elections, but the system of proportional representation makes a coalition assembly most likely. The new assembly will be charged with writing a new constitution and appointing a transitional government.