Tunisia's moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, are set to claim victory in the country's first democratic elections since Arab Spring protests ousted the former dictatorial leader from power.
Officials say more than 90 per cent of registered voters turned out to express their democratic will, for the first time in almost 50 years last weekend. Ennahda is unlikely to have won an overall majority, with around 40 per cent of the vote, but is expected to form a coalition in the Constituent Assembly.
Attention has been focused on one prominent female candidate, Souad Abderrahim, who has come to symbolise the new spirit of democratic moderation. Abderrahim, who does not wear a headscarf, seeks to reassure the electorate that there will be no curbing of women's rights and no feared Islamist takeover.
She told The Times:
"If they put forward someone like me, who is liberal, who does not use the veil and runs a pharmacy, it’s an assurance to everyone. We are not going to ban alcohol or tourism or force people to wear the veil or to go to prayers. These are personal affairs".
Former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown after two decades of personal rule following mass demonstrations nine months ago. It inspired popular uprisings against oppressive regimes across the Arab world.
Devout Muslims were repressed under President Ben Ali, as he sought to prevent any Islamic uprising.
The leader of the Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi, returned from Britain after 22 years of exile and is keen to champion Abderrahim. Jane Kinninmont from Chatham House explained to the Huffington Post that Ennahda had "scored a PR coup by fielding a female candidate who does not wear hijab".
Abderrahim describes herself as "liberal, with an Islamic base". She was also jailed briefly for student activism.
"It is an extraordinary moment. In less than a year, Ennahda has gone from an underground movement in exile to a legal party and now, we can suppose, to the centre of a government team", Malika Zeghal, a professor of Islamic thought at Harvard University, told the Guardian.
After the definitive results are released, Ennahda will set about forming a coalition government with secularists. Together they will rewrite the constitution and set a date for parliamentary elections.
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