TUNIS – Thousands of Tunisians lined from early hours on Sunday, October 23, to cast votes in a landmark election, the first since the surprise toppling of strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali that sparked the Arab Spring.
"I am very excited about voting in the first democratic elections," hotel employee Mondher Hamdi, 23, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"Freedom was expensive, we have to pay our dues!"
Houcine Khlifi, 62, was also excited as he queues outside a central Tunis polling station.
"I didn't sleep at all last night from excitement," he said.
"Tunisia today offers to the world a bouquet of flowers of liberty and dignity."
Some 7.2 million people are eligible to elect a 217-member assembly that will write a new constitution after decades of autocratic government under Ben Ali, who was ousted in a popular revolution earlier this year.
Moreover, it will also be charged with appointing an interim president and a caretaker government for the duration of the drafting process.
The elections are the first since Ben Ali fled Tunisia on January 14 amid the first of several mass uprisings across the Arab world.
Polls opened at 07.00 am (0600 GMT), with the independent elections body ISIE urging voters to turn out in numbers "to continue the work of the martyrs and to realize the objectives of the Tunisian revolution".
More than 11,000 candidates are running in the polls, representing 80 political parties. Several thousand candidates are running as independents.
Polls close at 19:00 local time (18:00 GMT), and results will be declared on Monday.
Tunisians living abroad voted on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, ahead of the homeland, to elect 18 representatives at the constituent assembly.
In preparations for today’s vote, the government has deployed 40,000 police and soldiers to prevent any possible protests escalating into violence.
Shopkeepers in Tunis, meanwhile, said that people had been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case any unrest disrupted the supply of necessities.
The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation last December triggered the Tunisian revolt, termed the elections as a victory for dignity and freedom.
"Now I am happy that my son's death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice," Manoubia Bouazizi told Reuters.
"I'm an optimist, I wish success for my country."
In the run-up to the vote, a mood of optimism and excitement in the capital was obvious.
"This is the first time in my life I've truly voted. It is something extraordinary," Turkane Seklani, a 37-year-old who cast her ballot in a polling station set up in the Bourguiba High School in Tunis, told The Independent.
Nizar, another Tunisian voter, was not less excited.
"We feel so vindicated after so many years of frustration," Nizar told the Gulf News.
For him, elections were a democratic experience they have never truly touched before in the Arab countries.
"The West has always thought that Arabs cannot and will not appreciate democracy or connect with any form of true elections,” he said.
“Today, we are proving them and every other skeptical person that they are wrong," he said with a wide grin on his elated face.
Ennahda, an Islamic-leaning party, is expected to emerge as the biggest winner in the elections, but officials said that everybody will have to wait until the final results are announced.
Many analysts predicted Ennahda to gain bout 25%-30% of the vote.
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