Tunisians will experience free elections this weekend, the first since their 50 years of living under the rule of a single party. Ten months after their revolution, which touched off others — the Arab Spring — they will choose the members of an assembly responsible for building a new government.
Street protests erupted in Tunisia after a vegetable seller took his own life, setting himself alight after the authorities in the town of Sidi Bouzid prevented him from working.
The people demanded the resignation of the president of 23 years, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, and he fled into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The elections were to have been held in July but took time to organise, notably to register all the eligible voters and give them cards. Now, part of this new experience is the great number of candidate lists; some 1,500 of them, with 11,000 candidates in all.
The one most in the forefront is the Islamist party Ennahda, which was banned under Ben Ali.
The secularist, liberal, centrist Progressive Democratic Party is led by a woman General Secretary, Maya Jribi.
The centre-left Ettakatol is led by a senior opponent of the old regime, Mustapha Ben Jaafar.
Led by the now centre-left old communist party al-Tajdid, the Modernist Democratic Pole is a coalition running a secular, feminist campaign.
The once-banned Congress for the Republic is led by human rights activist Moncef Marzouki.
The Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party is also popular.
Ennahda the Islamists are widely expected to come out ahead, with as much as 30 percent of the vote.
Their leader Rached Ghannouchi has warned that if there is fraud, “we will take to the streets [again] with the Tunisian people”.
Ennahda have promised not to impose sharia law, but some critics are sceptical.
The Constituent Assembly will have 217 members, in place for a year. They will have the power to draft a new constitution, appoint and oversee an interim government until new elections are set and to designate a new president.
The exercise of democratic right and responsibility both excites and confuses the Tunisians. They do not know how realistic it is to hope for swift results. Since the revolution, the economy has been in recession, tourism has collapsed, foreign companies have folded and the jobless rate is near 20 percent — worse for young people. Yet the elections are a crucial step, not just for Tunisia but as a sign for the other countries that rose up.