Tunisia's First Free Election Deemed Success

Tunisians proud of sparking the Arab Spring are now celebrating another first in this long revolutionary season: a free and fair election. After decades of dictatorship, Tunisians happily waited in long lines to cast their votes for a national assembly that will rewrite the country's constitution. Election officials say in some areas the turnout was 90 percent.

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Tunisians proud of sparking the Arab Spring are now celebrating another first in this long revolutionary season - a free and fair election. After decades of dictatorship, Tunisians happily waited in long lines to cast their votes for a national assembly that will rewrite the country's constitution. Election officials say in some areas the turnout was 90 percent. Eleanor Beardsley began her report at a polling booth in the capital, Tunis.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Tunisians turned out to the polls en masse Sunday, excited and full of a new found patriotism.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: Two women proudly hold up their blackened index fingers, proof they've just exercised their newly-won democratic right. It's the first time, they tell me.

A long line winds through the school courtyard. People hold umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun as they wait, sometimes for hours.

But no one would think of missing this day, says it, says 42-year-old teacher Lamjied Jemli.

LAMJIED JEMLI: (Through Translator) We used to be so ashamed of our country under the dictatorship, and the sham elections. But today we're proud to be Tunisian. And we know our voice will be truly heard this time, but we're ready to recognize whoever wins these elections. The big winner today is our country, and the Tunisian People.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CANTO)

BEARDSLEY: The voting station is right next to a mosque in a poor neighborhood of Tunis. Boys tend a flock of rambunctious sheep under a minaret as it calls out the afternoon prayer. Many of the voters here said they have cast their ballot for the Muslim party, Ennahda, because they say it will do the most to help the poor. Early exit polls show that Ennahda may have won as much 40 percent of the vote, though there are no official numbers yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

BEARDSLEY: In some of the well-off neighborhoods around Tunis, like La Marsa, people here say they fear too much religious influence in politics could damage Tunisia's strong secular traditions. Thirty-three-year-old Slim Amamou says he's voting for the party that guarantees the most personal freedoms.

SLIM AMAMOU: (Through Translator) We're finally joining the rest of the world with our new democracy. And starting tomorrow we'll be out demonstrating and holding protests like they're doing on Wall Street and in Spain.

BEARDSLEY: A revolutionary blogger, Amamou was jailed under dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. He says Tunisians will continue to use the social network tools that helped bring him down to keep a watch on their newly elected assembly members.

Social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter also played a key roll in the country's first free election campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV POLITICAL AD)

BEARDSLEY: Cleaver campaign ads flooded the net and parties battled it out on Facebook pages. Tunisians know their emerging democracy carries a huge burden of expectation. Political analysts Fares Mabrouk says no matter which faction ends up with a majority, the election was a success.

FARES MABROUK: (Through Translator) A huge majority of Tunisians went to vote yesterday, and this is the confirmation of Tunisians will and desire to create a democracy. This is the good news we can already announce.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

BEARDSLEY: There's one more person I want to see vote was, 26-year-old Raafet Moussa. Moussa was protesting in the streets of Tunis last January when the regime fell. Chased by the dictator's dreaded secret police, he knocked on my hotel door and asked if he could hide in my room. I remember the look of fear in his eyes. Today Moussa is beaming.

RAAFET MOUSSA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: I'm one of the young people who revolted to create this new country, he tells me. Voting is an honor but also our responsibility.

With this election, says Moussa, we can now say that we have concluded our revolution.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis.

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