Joy as Tunisians prepare for their first free vote

 

Tunis

"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
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
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
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence