“It’s the first time in my life I’ve actually voted,” said Turkane Seklani, 37, in Tunis. She cast her vote for Ettakatol, a liberal party. She woke up at 6 a.m. to get to the polling station and to make sure there would be no mix-ups at the polls. “I am so happy.”
It was here that the year’s first Arab revolution accomplished the unthinkable, forcing a long-ruling autocrat to flee. Emboldened by the Tunisian revolt, the region’s streets awakened. Egyptians ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Libyan protesters-turned-fighters fought a bloody war for eight months and on Thursday killed Moammar Gaddafi. In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and beyond, the unrest continues.
On Sunday, Tunisia — where the most peaceful of the revolts unfolded — took the next step as citizens voted. The success or failure of the vote to elect assembly members who will write the nation’s new constitution and appoint an interim leader will set a precedent for other Arab nations where citizens are calling for democratic reforms. But it will also be a window into the character of the governments that emerge from this year’s tumult: secular or religious, democratic or despotic.
“If we succeed, we’ll send the message that democracy is possible as we sent the message that it is possible to remove a dictator,” said Sihem Bensedrine, a journalist and human rights activist who has fought for decades to expose abuses and defend freedom of expression in Tunisia. “We will be the recipe.”
Still, she worried that the elections could be marred by low participation, violence and accusations of fraud.
But most are confident the elections, overseen by an independent commission, will be free and fair, with thousands of domestic observers and hundreds of foreign observers at the polling stations.
“We do not have the right to fail,” Bensedrine said.
In the country of 10.4 million, about 55 percent of eligible Tunisians registered to vote after the revolution. But turnout could be higher — people can vote by presenting an identification card without first registering.
More than 110 parties are running, which probably means that no one faction will control the National Constituent Assembly. The number of parties has confused prospective voters used to the old system, which for decades was rigged to guarantee that President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s now-dissolved Democratic Constitutional Rally party won. Although a few opposition parties were allowed, they were oppressed and marginalized.
In the more than nine months since Ben Ali’s ouster, the interim government has not solved the problems that drove Tunisian youths to the streets, including economic woes, rampant corruption and the lack of opportunity. Activists fear that remnants of Ben Ali’s regime will use feelings of disappointment to steer people from the polls and undermine the election.