Joy as Tunisians prepare for their first free vote



"Today, I'm going to the hairdresser and the hammam [steam baths]. I have new clothes – just like for a big celebration," says Jannet, in Tunis. "I won't be able to sleep and tomorrow I'll go to the polling station at 7am, first thing." At that thought, the 57-year-old starts crying, tears of joy: "I'm so proud, so excited" she says. "And so relieved the fear is over."

Around Tunis, anticipation has been building up to this day, when the country takes part in its first free vote, following decades of authoritarian control under ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia, the country that started the tide of Arab uprisings this January, is now the first to put democracy to the test. Today, voters will choose from more than 100 parties and 11,000 candidates, for 217 seats of the assembly that will write the country's constitution and appoint a transitional government.

All week, parties held rallies, canvassed in the streets and faced intense grilling from voters, but the official campaign period ended late on Friday. By Saturday, many voters were still deliberating, talking over options with friends – in itself a novelty. "If we had this discussion under Ben Ali's regime, the police would come and take us away within three minutes – and you with us," says Jamal Ayadi, 50, discussing politics with a crowd of men in Hafisia, in the old city of Tunis. The old regime shut down political discussion, using the omnipresent secret police to imprison and torture dissenters. Elections were openly rigged. "We didn't have a vote," says Ayadi, a telecoms specialist. "Every five years, we would just watch a re-run of the same movie, where Ben Ali would win the election by 99 per cent."

Now, the party with the largest share of the vote – 25 per cent in polls – is the Islamist Ennahda. Outlawed by the former regime, the party has resources, organisational strength and is focused on presenting a moderate, pluralist agenda – careful not to arouse concerns over religious interference in a proudly liberal society.

Such concerns show up in the questions women ask of the party, says Ennahda activist Abdel Hamid ben Farh, 37, a high-school teacher campaigning into the evening at a political rally in the Medina, the oldest part of Tunis, on Friday. "No matter if they are educated or not, all women ask if the party is going to force them to wear the hijab and if we are going to reintroduce polygamy for men." Ennahda's answer to both is "no" – though these are key questions in a country that is the most progressive in the region over women's rights.

Feminist, lawyer and party candidate Bochra Belhaj Hamida says: "So what if they get 25 per cent of the vote? That still leaves 75 per cent – these are comfortable figures for the rest of us to work with." Previously independent, Hamida is running for Ettakatol, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, polling at 14 per cent of the vote. Other leading parties of the secular centre and left include the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) at 16 percent, and Congress for the Republic (CPR) at 8 per cent.

Hamida, the Ettakatol candidate, is one of the beneficiaries of a new legal ruling that 50 per cent of each party's lists (in a proportional representation system) is female. The lists must alternate between men and women – so that the parties don't push the female quota to the bottom – but there is no law to have women lead them. As a result, in most cases they don't. "We are dealing with a patriarchal society, misogynistic parties, and women who do not practice solidarity," says Hamida, who insisted on leading her constituency list. "I'm a feminist – do you think I'd agree to second place?"

Out of 33 candidates, Ettatakol has four women at the top. Ennahda has three, including the unveiled Souad Abdel Rahim, a pharmacist who is running in the capital. The Democratic Modernist Pole (PDM), a secular coalition running an equal-rights ticket, is the only party with women leading half of its lists. Female under-representation features amongst voters, too: only 21 per cent of women over 30 are registered to vote, though the figure rises to 51 per cent amongst those aged 18 to 30.

But around Tunis, women and men alike know that this historic election is being watched the world over. And they are keen to set a good example.

"We want a new Tunisia," says Yousra Ouri, 25, in the Medina. "A country we can love and that will encourage others in their struggles for freedom."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor