Wary but Determined, Tunisians Begin Voting in First Election

Months after launching the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisians are finally getting a shot at democracy in Sunday's vote

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Supporters of Tunisia's PDP hold up Tunisian flags during an election campaign meeting in Tunis / Reuters

This Sunday, October 23, Tunisians will go to the polls to elect a 217 person constituent assembly that will be tasked with writing a new constitution for the country within a year. Just as Tunisia led the Arab world in overthrowing its dictator, it continues to lead in moving toward a new political system. While Tunisians feel justifiably proud in their political progress, there is nevertheless considerable tension and pessimism in the lead-up to this symbolic election.

On one level, people simply feel overwhelmed by the process. With some hundred political parties and 1500 electoral lists competing for attention, voters don't know who to vote for and feel unsure of the issues. There remains a deep distrust of government. Polls show that at this late stage, half the voters are still undecided.

Recent protests also reveal the tensions between secularists and Islamists that have in many ways dominated the campaign season. Last weekend, demonstrators gathered in the town of Sousse to protest a decision by the Ministry of Education to ban students from wearing the face-covering niqab. The next day in Tunis, protesters marched on the Nessma Television offices in outrage against the showing of the animated film Persepolis, the story of a young girl coming of age against the backdrop of Iran's Islamic revolution. The film insulted Muslims across the political spectrum, not only because it features a depiction of God, but also because it portrays the main character railing against God during a crisis of faith. The film aired previously in 2007 (when it also drew attacks from Islamists), but this time it was dubbed in Arabic instead of French, and thus was watched in circles beyond the educated elite. Only one well-known party supported the screening of the film on the basis of free speech.

Recent polls show that while a coalition of center-left parties could emerge from the elections with a sizeable share of the vote, there is also strong support (between 20 and 25 percent) for the main Islamist party Al Nahda led by Rachid Ghannouchi. He has promised that his party will preserve religious freedom, and the rights of women and minorities. However, liberals in Tunisia and their supporters abroad warn that Ghannouchi is playing a double game. They contend that his "liberal makeover" is simply a tactic to appeal to moderates and gain votes. The party's apparent flip-flopping on sensitive issues, like whether they will push for making polygamy legal, underscores general uncertainty about their intentions.

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Headlines in the Tunisian press reveal a great deal of concern about security at voting stations and about the legitimacy of the tabulation of results. Ghannouchi told Al Jazeera that his party was prepared to "overthrow ten governments" if the results of the election are manipulated. Voter registration efforts have been haphazard, and currently only half of potential voters are even registered. Campaigning, which started October 1, has been vigorous as the many political parties attempt to educate and then persuade voters to support their platforms. Complicating this effort is a ban on advertising that the major liberal party, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), claims is playing into Islamist hands as they are able to disseminate their messages in mosques and through their strong social networks.

While the Islamic character of Tunisian society will be more visible in the new constituent assembly, the country's long experience as a secular state will not disappear overnight. The appropriate role of religion in society and law will continue to be contested, and will undoubtedly emerge as a divisive issue in the writing of the new constitution. But that's politics.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.