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Tunisia elections face unexpected obstacle: youth apathy

The fervor of Tunisia's youth-led revolution, which sparked subsequent uprisings in the region, has been surprisingly absent ahead of Tunisia's elections this weekend.

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Islamic parties join the fray

Electoral turnout is always important, but the stakes are particularly high in Tunisia, where the political landscape has been transformed since January. Islamic parties, long outlawed under Ben Ali, have returned to the scene, more than doubling the size of the traditional opposition.

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The field of anti-Ben Ali activists in Tunisia used to be dominated by left-wing Communists and unionists, but the more conservative religious wing now carries considerable political heft. Unlike the traditional leftist parties, many of these Islamists are united under one umbrella: Ennahada, which stands to carry about 30 percent of the electorate. Polling conducted this summer (such polls have been forbidden since campaigning officially began in October) indicates that no other party will garner more than a fifth of the votes.

Both Ennahada and the more left-leaning parties understand the stakes of the elections ahead, which will literally shape Tunisia's future. In the final days before the contest, they are moving full force to convince their supporters to make their voice heard. Ennahada has held near-daily rallies and conferences throughout the country, as have candidates for more secular parties.

"Everyone’s going to be watching closely to see how the vote falls down between three camps: Islamist, far left secular, and centrist," says Christopher Alexander, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and author of "Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb."

Late, but not no-shows

Early indications could prove false. It wouldn't be the first time that Tunisia's people surprised the world by coming out in force. "[Many Tunisians] weren't interested in the campaign, but they are very interested in the elections," says Khaled Houssein, a project manager at the Center for Arab Women's Training and Research, who spent the last week touring rural Tunisia and speaking with voters. "They weren't interested in the campaign because they don't want to listen to promises. They want to see actions."

Mr. Hasnaoui, the human rights activist, argues that the lack of youth participation in parties is not representative of whether they will actually vote.

"The day of elections, they will change their opinion," he says, noting that it was only a small number of committed men and women who organized and inspired protesters to the streets back in January. "I don't worry about the majority, I worry about the youth who are active – because it's they who have the capacity to create [social movements]."

Yet others believe that youths will become active again only after the voting has finished and the implications of the new political scene begin to sink in. Mr. Bayrek says he expects university campuses to light up with activity after the initial vote.

“I hope they will join together and look for a real vision to change our negative thinking," he says.

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