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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."