However Tunisia's political parties fare in the country's first real election, their biggest challenge -- and the one that could determine the fate of Tunisia's democratic experiment -- will not be winning votes but learning how to cooperate with one another
A supporter of the Party Democratic Progress (PDP) waves a Tunisian flag during a rally / Reuters
TUNIS, Tunisia -- Even before voters went to the polls on Sunday, the leader of Tunisia's largest political party was beaming with pride. Rached Ghannouchi, a 70-year-old Islamist leader of the al-Nahda party, has been waiting for this day for two decades. His moderate religious party was allowed back into Tunisia in March after this year's revolution ousted the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. And just months after its rebirth, al-Nahda's political machinery has commanding dominance. "We believe that we will be the number one party in the country," he told an audience of local and foreign journalists on Thursday, just a day before the campaign came to a close. "We are ready to serve our people at the level of government."
Election results likely won't be officially announced until sometime Tuesday. But there is little doubt that Ghannouchi's party will win a significant number of the 217 seat-body that will make up a Constituent Assembly -- the next step in this country's democratic transition. The new assembly will set the rules for Tunisia's democratic transition over the coming year, writing a new constitution and appointing a new caretaker government. An incredible 1,517 lists of candidates are contesting for seats, but only al-Nahda is expected to garner more than a quarter of the vote.
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Yet if al-Nahda wins the most seats, it still will not have won the right to lead Tunisia's transition. The real battle will begin the morning after, when everyone, including al-Nahda, will have to form coalitions that can actually govern. "The elections are a process of elimination for the small parties," says Ahmed Lounnaies, a long-serving Tunisian diplomat who acted as foreign minister in the first cabinet formed after the revolution. The second phase -- the most important one -- will begin when the plethora of political parties form coalitions amongst themselves that can govern. And if enough small parties get together, they could challenge al-Nahda's otherwise uncontested heft.