Southland voters participate in first Tunisian election

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Tunisian authorities counted votes Monday in the first free election in the nation's history, with early signs that a once-banned Islamist party is leading in the country that unleashed uprisings across the Arab world. Southland Tunisians gathered at the Hollywood Heights Hotel Friday and Saturday to cast ballots in Tunisia’s first-ever parliamentary elections.

Tunisian expatriates lined up outside a small conference room in the hotel and were taken in, one by one, to vote for the first time in their lives. Voters took out cell phones to take pictures of the blue ink stained on their fingers, amid excited chatter in Tunisian Arabic and French.

Radio Mosaique FM posted results from polling stations around Tunisia Monday, with many showing a commanding lead for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. An Ennahda victory in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia could have wide implications for similar religious parties across North Africa.

Election commission head Kamel Jendoubi said official results would be released Tuesday afternoon.

Abdelkder Benlaid Chalbi drove an hour from Riverside to cast his vote. He wore symbolic chains around his neck before entering the voting booth, then removed them as he walked out.

“I am now free!” he said, to a cheering crowd.

Belaid Myriam posed for photos with her family in front of a Tunisian flag hanging in the doorway. “It doesn’t really matter who wins,” she said. “It matters that the people vote.”

Tunisian voters in Southern California nearly missed out on the opportunity to cast their ballots. It took four months of persistence and a last minute phone call to the Tunisian ambassador to convince election officials to set up a voting center in Los Angeles, according to its organizers, Beshir Blagui and Ridha Nouaili.

Voters helped elect a constituent assembly entrusted with writing a new constitution for the country. There are nearly 10,000 Tunisians registered to vote in the U.S. They'll be represented by two seats on the 217-member National Constituent Assembly, who'll also represent expatriates in parts of Europe. The Associated Press reports that the emerging assembly will have one of the highest percentages of female members of any Middle Eastern parliament.

Elections took place Sunday in Tunisia, but voters abroad cast their votes late last week in locations throughout the U.S., including Washington D.C., New York, Miami, Houston and San Francisco.

European observers on Monday pronounced the election one of the freest they had ever seen and urged all the parties to accept the results. Long snaking lines of voters on Sunday testified to Tunisians' eagerness to embrace an open ballot after decades of dictatorship.

"There is no way of arguing the legitimacy of the outcome, absolutely not, even if there is disappointment," said Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, the head of the observer delegation from the Council of Europe.

"We call on the principal political actors to recognize the results of the elections and to quickly begin the work of the National Constituent Assembly," he added.

Many of the parties had accused Ennahda of election violations, from advising voters how to cast their ballots to even the outright purchase of votes, but the observers dismissed the reports.

"We didn't see any evidence of the allegations by some stakeholders of vote buying," said Italian parliamentarian Riccardo Migliori. "They should not make such allegations if they don't have the evidence."

Tunisia was known for decades for its repressive leadership but also for its progressive legislation on women and families, which secular-leaning Tunisians fear Ennahda will roll back if it takes a commanding number of seats in the new assembly.

Ennahda believes that Islam should be the reference point for the country's system and laws but maintains it will respect women's rights and is committed to democracy and working with other parties.

"During the campaign the Islamist party was quite disciplined in saying they will protect human rights, they will protect the rights of women and maintain equality, but in fact this is an open question," said Ricky Goldstein who observed the elections for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

He did, however, pronounce Tunisia "a shining example in terms of the conduct of elections," in an interview with Associated Press Television News. "We will see the example of Tunisia influence positively the upcoming elections in Egypt."

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 dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Libya's new leaders also announced plans with a sharply Islamist tone that could rattle their Western backers.

Turnout in Tunisia was massive on a day electric with the excitement, with long lines at polling stations. More than 90 percent of the country's 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.

In a surprise second place in many constituencies was the Congress for the Republic party of longtime human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, according to party and electoral officials. Marzouki is known less for his political beliefs than for his high-profile criticism of the old regime's repression.

Of all the secular parties arrayed against Ennahda in the election, Marzouki's has been the most open to joining a coalition with the Islamist party.

Also a surprise has been the apparent poor showing of the Progressive Democratic Party, the strongest legal opposition group under the old regime, a center-left party that has billed itself as the main opponent of Ennahda and a defender of secular values.

Preliminary results don't show the party even polling a distant third or fourth in many districts.

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 broad-based 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 to protest police harassment. The uprising was fueled by anger over unemployment, corruption and repression and quickly 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 his congratulations, saying that "less than a year after they inspired the world, the Tunisian people took an important step forward."

France - Tunisia's former colonial master - said that with Sunday's elections the country had "confirmed its role as pioneer."

Tunisia's economy and employment, however, have only gotten worse since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia because tourists and foreign investors have stayed away.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story has been updated..

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