"The situation is very calm. Last night, the campaign ended without any incidents and now we are living in the expectation of the vote" said Catholic Archbishop Maroun Elias Lahham of Tunis of the first free election in Tunisia since 1956.
On October 23, 11,000 candidates contended for 218 seats in the Constitutional Assembly that will have to write the new Constitution. There were 7 million registered voters and at least 80% participated in the ballot. A high number of parties entered the hustings, most of which were formed in the aftermath of the fall of Ben Ali's regime. Early results suggest a victory for the Islamist Ennahada party. Radio Mosaique FM posted results from polling stations around the country, with many showing a commanding lead for Ennahda.
Archbishop Laham showed some concern that Tunisians may have been confused by the number of choices, "The Tunisian parties are 120, of which 110 have presented themselves in the elections. This certainly is likely to cause confusion among voters, accentuated by the fact that it is the first time that the Tunisians vote in elections which are truly free. They are not accustomed to the election campaign, conducted by the parties, promising more or less the same thing. There is enthusiasm but also uncertainty".
The archbishop added, "Tunisia has started its path to democracy. It will be a model of democracy made by Tunisians. There are no standard models of democracy valid for all countries. Each creates its own model, adapting it to their social and cultural conditions. I am optimistic about the future of the country."
Observers said that there were queues of voters waiting at polling stations throughout the country for the Sunday ballot and that there were no reported incidents of disorder. Poll workers are manually counting the votes, with final results expected on October 25. The manual vote-counting method "requires time," said Boubaker Bethabet, secretary-general of the Independent High Authority for the Election to the official Tunisia News Agency. "It is carried out twice by two distinct teams. The obtained results are then compared to ensure greater accuracy."
Political tensions had grown during the electoral campaign that grew out of the revolution that threw out President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime nine months ago. Ennahada, a once-banned moderate Islamist party had consistently scored highest in public opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the election but was adamantly opposed by secularist and cosmopolitan Tunisians. The campaign period marked an escalation in tension between secular and religious Tunisians. Groups animated by religious conservatives, for example, staged angry and sometimes violent protests at universities and a private TV channel, to show opposition to the broadcast of the animated film "Persepolis," which included a depiction of a divinity.
Prominent secularist politicians, like the Progressive Democratic Party's Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, campaigned on anti-Ennahada platforms and warned voters that a victory for the party would roll back Tunisia's supposed evolution towards a secular state.
U.S. President Barack Obama praised the election, saying "Today, less than a year after they inspired the world, the Tunisian people took an important step forward."
In December 2010, a wave of protests began in Tunisia that led eventually to the ousting of the Ben Ali family and government. Protests were triggered in the aftermath of the suicide of a poor street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on alight to protest government harassment. The 26-year-old Bouzazi became a symbol for the further protests throughout the region and beyond as the so-called Arab Spring brought down governments in Libya and Egypt and threatened revolutionary change in Jordan and elsewhere.
Reaction in the Muslim world appeared to be positive with regard to the developments in Tunisia. In Jordan, Amr Moussa - the former Arab League secretary-general and current presidential candidatein Egypt - said whatever the outcome of the vote in Tunisia, the results of the democratic election must be respected. "We cannot play havoc with our development, with our revolutions," he said. "We chose democracy, and democracy has to be the rule of the game and whatever the outcome would be, we have to accept it and I believe that the outcome would be a balanced one. It will not give majority to one party or one political current." Tunisia’s interim President Fouad Mebazaa, a former associate of Ben Ali under the previous regime, has pledged to hand over power to whomever is chosen as president by the new constituent assembly. Former dictator Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 23 years, fled to exile in Saudi Arabia.