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Tunisia Islamist party seeking coalition partners

The moderate Islamist party that appears to have won Tunisia's landmark elections was in talks with rivals Tuesday about forming an interim coalition government to lead the birthplace of the Arab Spring through its transition to democracy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The moderate Islamist party that appears to have won Tunisia's landmark elections was in talks with rivals Tuesday about forming an interim coalition government to lead the birthplace of the Arab Spring through its transition to democracy.

Partial results released supported the Ennahda party's claims that it won at least 40 percent of the seats in a 217-member assembly tasked with running the country and writing its new constitution. But results so far indicate the Islamists failed to win an outright majority, meaning a coalition must be formed.

Ennahda's ability to win an election as well as work with other groups will be closely watched in the Arab world, where other Islamist parties are to compete in elections soon. Independent observers have also praised Tunisia for pulling off what they called a free and fair election with few hassles despite months of uncertainty and instability.

Tunisia has a strong secular tradition, and Ennahda officials promised a broad-based coalition.

"We will not exclude any party, independent personality or social movement," said Abdel Hamid Jelassi, Ennahda's campaign manager. "We were once the victims of a politics of exclusion and our goal is to create a government of national unity."

He said the party already had a raft of measures set to be implemented next month to "address the urgent needs of the Tunisian people." Some 18 percent of Tunisians are unemployed, especially youth, and the economy has been hard hit by a drop in tourism and the civil war in neighboring Libya.

The newly elected assembly is expected to appoint the interim government, and spend a year writing a constitution before elections are held for a parliament and a permanent government.

The Tunisian electoral commission said the Ennahda party has won 28 out of 64 domestic seats so far. Together with the results announced Monday from Tunisians living abroad, Ennahda now has 37 out of 82 seats total, or just over 45 percent with a third of results in.

Tunisians overthrew their longtime dictator in January, a move that sparked similar movements in other Arab countries, including successful revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Ennahda, which was long suppressed by Tunisia's ousted dictator, emerged as the best organized party in the Tunisian election.

Ennahda says it wants sharia, or Islamic law, to be the source of Tunisia's legislation, but also insists that the country's progressive personal status code is compatible with its ideals and that it respects all religions and creeds. It also has promised to safeguard women's rights.

The next most popular party, the Congress for the Republic, has won 13 seats so far and is led by veteran human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, who was one of the few politicians to say from the beginning he could see joining a coalition with Ennahda.

The results of the domestic seats were from more than a million voters from nine of the 27 electoral districts inside Tunisia and included the large cities of Sfax and Sousse. Around 90 percent of the country's 4.1 million registered voters flocked to Sunday's polls, which have been praised by international observers.

"The voting process was marked by peaceful and enthusiastic participation, generally transparent procedures, and a popular confidence about Tunisia's democratic transition," said a statement by the Carter Center, which observed the contests.

Part of the vote's success is attributed to the High Independent Authority for the Elections, which ran the process instead of the Interior Ministry as happens in so many Arab countries.

The commission staffed 8,000 polling stations with 50,000 workers, including around 20,000 unemployed university graduates whose performance was praised. Media campaigns and posters explained the mechanisms of the vote to Tunisians. Voters could use text messaging to find out where to cast ballots.

Results, however, were being released in a trickle. Election officials said the painstaking nature of the counting process has caused the delay.

"The mechanism for tallying requires a lot of effort and time because all the votes in a district are taken to one place and this is for security reasons," said Boubaker Bethabet, the secretary general of the election commission.

He added that, in many cases, poll officials sealed the tally sheets inside the ballot boxes after the initial count in the voting stations. The boxes can only be reopened in the presence of representatives of the more than 80 political parties involved in the vote.

Approximately 200 people demonstrated outside the conference hall where results were being announced Tuesday afternoon. The protesters claimed that several of the more successful parties, including Ennahda, had engaged in vote buying or influencing the elections on Sunday.

"The law must be applied to bring down the parties that committed fraud," said Rachid Glenza, one of the demonstrators.

The election commission and foreign observer delegations have said they have not seen any evidence of vote buying or serious fraud.