TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisian authorities counted votes Monday in carefully watched elections, amid early signs showing a once-banned Islamist party leading in many constituencies in the country that unleashed uprisings across the Arab world.
Tunisia was known for decades for its repressive leadership but also for its progressive legislation on women and families, which secular-leaning Tunisians fear the moderate Islamist party Ennahda would roll back if it takes a commanding number of seats in the new assembly being created by Sunday's elections.
Tunisia's landmark elections coincided with declarations in neighboring Libya by its new leaders that the country has been liberated from the yoke of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi. The new leaders also announced plans with a sharply Islamist tone that could rattle their Western backers.
In Tunisia, Radio Mosaique FM posted results from polling stations around the country Monday, with many showing a commanding lead for Ennahda.
Election commission head Kamel Jendoubi said official results would be released Tuesday afternoon.
Turnout was massive on a day electric with the excitement of Tunisia's first truly free elections in its history, with long lines at polling stations. More than 90 percent of the 4.1 million registered voters, out of a 7.5 million strong electorate, participated, said Boubker Bethabet, Secretary General of the election commission.
Voters were electing a 217-seat constituent assembly that will shape their fledgling democracy, choose a new government and write a new constitution that would pave the way for future elections.
Ennahda had been widely expected to perform well, though the key question is whether it would get a majority. Regardless of the result, the party has said it would join a coalition with other parties to ensure a broadbased government.
More than 14,000 local and international observers watched polling stations, including delegations from the European Union and the Carter Center.
Voters included women with headscarves and without, former political prisoners and young people whose Facebook posts helped fuel the revolution.
After 23 years in power, President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown Jan. 14 by a monthlong uprising, sparked by a fruit vendor who set himself on fire in protest of police harassment, then stirred by anger over unemployment, corruption and repression.
The uprising inspired similar rebellions across the Arab world. The autocratic rulers of Egypt and Libya have fallen since, but Tunisia is the first country to hold free elections as a result of the upheaval. Egypt's parliamentary election is set for next month.
President Barack Obama offered congratulations, saying that "less than a year after they inspired the world, the Tunisian people took an important step forward."
An Ennahda victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.
Ennahda believes that Islam should be the reference point for the country's system and laws and believes that democracy is the best system to maintain people's rights.
Preliminary reports indicate voting went smoothly. But some expressed indifference about the elections out of frustration that life has not improved since the revolution. Tunisia's economy and employment, part of the reason for the revolution in the first place, has only gotten worse since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia because tourists and foreign investors have stayed away.