Tunisian Poll: Bellwether For Arab Spring This Sunday, Tunisia is holding its first ever, free and democratic election. Tunisia, the first Arab nation to throw off the yoke of dictatorial rule this year, is arguably the most moderate nation in the Arab world, but Islamist candidates are expected to do well.

Tunisian Poll To Provide Bellwether For Arab Spring

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On Sunday, Tunisians go to the polls to choose a constitutional assembly. Eleanor Beardsley tells us that there is pride, confusion and mostly optimism ahead of that country's first free election.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: After having basically one choice at the ballot box for the last 50 years, Tunisians now have more than a hundred parties and thousands of candidates to choose from, and they're getting a taste of a real political campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BLARING)

BEARDSLEY: The streets of Tunis pulsate with get-out-the-vote activity. Music blares from the tent of one political party set up on a main avenue. Volunteers like Ibrahim Abasi hand out flyers.

IBRAHIM ABASI: (Through translator) I'm proud that we now have freedom and can say what we want. It's a new era. People are finally breathing now, and we are very optimistic.

BEARDSLEY: On Sunday, Tunisians will elect the members of a 217-seat assembly that will draft a new constitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

BEARDSLEY: Across town, 27-year-old Omezzine Khelifa campaigns for one of the major parties. She says the stakes for this election are high.

OMEZZINE KHELIFA: To write a constitution that reflects the will of Tunisians to be in a true democracy, first. To preserve all that we've acquired since our independence in terms of women's rights, but also advance and have real equality between men and women, to protect human rights.

BEARDSLEY: Khelifa, like probably half the women in Tunis, does not wear a headscarf. Tunisia is the most moderate and secular Arab nation, and its citizens have always enjoyed more personal freedoms than their neighbors. Islamist parties were persecuted under ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But now Islamist candidates are expected to do well in Sunday's vote, and many here worry that Islamists may become too influential in Tunisian society.

There is excitement at the headquarters of Ennahda, the main Islamist party. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, returned from a 20-year exile in London and now hopes to lead his party to a majority of seats in the new assembly. Unlike most of the newly founded parties, Ennahda has benefited from an existing grassroots organization. Party member Kamel Harbaoui says many Tunisians identify Ennahda with resistance to Ben Ali.

KAMEL HARBAOUI: They trust us because we are the main party that sacrificed a lot. We got tortured, we got killed, we got, you know, exiled, and we still fight for our people. We got the revolution, and we got our rights back.

BEARDSLEY: Ennahda leaders here have been stressing that the party is moderate and wants to work within a democracy. But many secular Tunisians fear that, once in power, Ennahda would seek to put its Islamist stamp on this tourist-friendly nation by doing things like chipping away at women's rights and banning alcohol.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE DAY AFTER")

BEARDSLEY: An online video campaign by secularist parties warns that the Islamists threaten Tunisia's future. Called "The Day After," the videos feature dramatic portrayals of ordinary Tunisians struggling to adjust to life in an Islamist-led country. A shopkeeper laments that the tourists have all stopped coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE DAY AFTER")

BEARDSLEY: Analysts say the balance in Tunisian society will be preserved if Ennahda does not get more than 30 percent of the vote. The party is particularly popular in the poor, interior of the country, but nobody knows its true level of support. Philosophy professor Mohammed Mahjoub says after decades of dictatorship, Tunisia is about to find out what it is made of.

MOHAMMED MAHJOUB: It's the first time - I mean, in this elections - that we are going to have a true map of the political trends and the political forces in Tunisia.

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

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