Historic Elections Mark Tunisia’s ‘New Beginning’

BY Larisa Epatko  October 24, 2011 at 4:05 PM EDT


Tunisia, the country that ushered in the Arab Spring, was the first in the region to hold unfettered elections on Sunday. Voters, spurred on by thoughts of a “new beginning,” waited in line for hours in some spots to participate in the historic day, election observers said.

The country voted on representatives to a Constituent Assembly that will draft a constitution. After approving the constitution, Tunisians then will vote for president. Official results for the Constituent Assembly are expected Tuesday, but early indications show the Islamist party Ennahda will have the largest portion of the vote though not an outright majority, Reuters reported, meaning coalition-building will be in Tunisia’s future.

Sharing power doesn’t appear to be a problem, said Dr. John Hardman, president and CEO of the Carter Center, who was also co-leader of the center’s Tunisia delegation. He spoke to us by phone from the capital Tunis. “In our talks with the party leaders, they all mentioned forming coalitions and working closely together and making sure that Tunisia was the benefit of this process, rather than just the political parties,” he said. “They are aware that certain parties may be stronger than others, but they all seem to be respectful of each party’s position.”

About 50 people reportedly rallied outside the election commission offices in Tunis, seeking an investigation into irregularities committed by Ennahda, but election officials said any problems were minor.

The Carter Center’s nearly 70 monitors joined hundreds more from the European Union, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and countries including Egypt, Japan, Jordan and France.

“It was an exciting time for all of the observers to be here to see the exhilaration and excitement of the Tunisian people,” said Hardman.

He said his organization’s observers, stationed in 28 different areas of the country, reported that the polling sites were peaceful, people were cooperative and the stations were free from campaign materials or pressure from the parties. And the long lines didn’t discourage participation, he said.

“When we asked how long [voters] waited, they would say two hours, three hours, four hours, plus 24 years or 26 years or 30 years,” depending on their age, said Hardman. Even though there were differences among the parties and voters about policies, people generally were optimistic about working together to move Tunisia to a new level of enjoying a participatory kind of self-governance that they had not been able to experience during their lifetime, he said. “They see this as a new beginning for the country.”

In mid-December 2010, protests over unemployment in Tunisia culminated a month later in President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the country. The result inspired a wave of other revolts in the region in places such as Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak left office after a 30-year rule in February. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was forced from power and killed by rebel fighters on Thursday.

The NewsHour looked at the broader impacts of the protests gripping the Middle East and North Africa in this April discussion:

We’ll have more about the Arab world uprisings and what they mean on Monday’s NewsHour. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.