Tunisians abroad vote in first Arab Spring election

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Tunisians living abroad voted Thursday in the first post-Arab Spring free election, three days before their compatriots at home go to the polls to turn the page on 23 years of autocratic rule.

Expat Tunisians choose 18 of the 217 members of the constituent assembly, voting until Saturday in six "constituencies": two in France, one in Italy, one in Germany, one in North America and one for other Arab nations.

Tunisians living in former colonial ruler France will elect 10 of these 18 seats, in an assembly that will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Pollsters expect the Islamist Ennahda (Renaisance) to win the most votes, stoking fears Tunisia may swap a secular dictatorship for a religious one nine months after street protests toppled strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"Operations have started in Paris. There's a lot of people, at least 200 in front of the consulate," said Ali Ben Ameur, head of the IRIE election organising body in northern France, in Paris.

Votes cast abroad will be counted on Saturday and the results announced after voting ends in Tunisia itself on Sunday.

Turnout is the big unknown of the election, the first free vote after two decades of fallen strongman Ben Ali's rule during which the results of the rigged elections were always known well in advance.

Ben Ali, once backed by the West for his supposed role as a rampart against Islamisation, fled to Saudi Arabia a month into a leaderless uprising by Tunisians driven to the streets by social injustice, poverty and corruption.

The short transition period was marked by protests against the pace of change and sporadic violence across the country, under intense global scrutiny as the spearhead of the fast-spreading Arab Spring.

Despite the high stakes, however, overall voter interest is low in a complex electoral landscape that will see around 7.3 million potential balloters choose from more than 10,000 candidates.

© 2011 AFP

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