Residents of Tunis awoke this morning to a city decorated in flags, the red and white national colors draped along every street large enough for two cars to pass.
Every few blocks, elementary schools had been transformed into voting stations, marked by a single flag and posters explaining how to cast a ballot in the country's first-ever democratic election. And almost as soon as the sun rose, Tunisians started making their way to vote.
“I'm so proud to be a Tunisian!” said Mabruka Alaib, exiting a polling station in the working class neighborhood of Jbel Lahmar.
“I'm so happy,” agrees Sameer Ibrahim, also leaving the station. “You know, this is the first time we vote.”
The voting here in Jebl Lahmar – a city racked by protests just last week – took place amid an orderly calm. Ibrahim finished the entire process in a mere 10 minutes.
Voting was orderly and calm, say observers
By and large, this was the experience across Tunisia, say election observers: the mood in polling stations is europhic, and aside from a few minor slip ups, the voting is taking place with impressive technical ease.
“People were very orderly, very patient, they stood in line and they were really straight lines!” says Marwan Muasher, a leader of the National Democratic Institute's observation mission and a former foreign minister of Jordan. “The sun is out now and it is hot, and yet it really struck me: There are a lot of smiley faces."
Tunisians are casting their ballots for a 217-member Constituent Assembly, a body that will draft a new constitution and appoint a new caretaker government. As the first elections of the Arab Spring, analysts believe today's vote will be a test of the country and the region's ability to transform popular protests into concrete democratic change.
There are about 80 political parties, plus a number of independents, contesting in these first democratic elections.
Islamist party primed to do well
The moderate Islamist Nahda party is by far the largest of these; estimates based on public polling have put its expected share of the vote at between 25 and 50 percent. Other parties expected to claim between five and 15 percent of votes include the secular Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the Democratic Federation for Labor and Liberty (Ettakatol), the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Modern Democratic Pole (PDM), among others.
It is difficult to predict exactly what the results will look like beyond these estimates however, not least because 40 percent of voters were undecided when the most recent poll was conducted in September.
Turnout better than predicted
With so much up in the air, turnout is expected to have a large impact on the results of the vote, and it appeared strong early in the day, though observers cautioned it was too early to tell.
Still, impressed by the long lines forming throughout polling stations across the country, by early-afternoon, the president of the country's Independent High Authority for Elections, Kamel Jendoubi, told journalists that “the massive turnout of Tunisians to the polls has beaten all predictions.”
“The number of voters is so impressive – we've never had anything like it before,” said Mohammed Bennour, a spokesman for Ettakatol. “Under [deposed dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali], they always said turnout was 90 percent. But if that was 90 percent, then today is 1,000 percent.”
Still, tensions simmer
Despite a widely visible mood of excitement, it wasn't hard to find reminders of the political tensions that still linger here.
In the main market near the lower-class neighborhood of Bab Souika in Tunis, shopkeepers and fruit and vegetable sellers said they didn't plan to vote; there was too much work to be done. Others expressed resignation and concerns that their vote would have little impact.
“I don't care about politicians and they don't care about me,” said Hami, a 21-year-old who won't vote in his native town of Nebuel, southeast of Tunis, and worries about giving his last name. “We need employment. But the big guys always eat the small guys, and the small guy has no voice.”
Tensions between political parties were also evident.
When Rached Ghannouchi, president and co-founder of the Nahda party, went to cast his vote early this morning in Tunis's Menzah 6 district, he faced jeering when he tried to jump the queue of voters. He later lined up with his family to wait, surrounded by a mix of supporting cheers and opponents calling for him to “dégage,” the same word used during protests to oust the former President Zine Aid Ben Ali.
Both Ettakatol's Bennour and Majd's Hani blamed Nahda for minor electoral violations, such as forcing women and men to line up separately, campaigning outside polling stations and trying to unduly influence votes in Tunisia's rural areas. A local journalist, frightened to give his name, said by phone that he had witnessed minor violence between Nahda supporters and other voters in Jendouba, a city south of Tunis.
Others in Jendouba were told they were not on the list of voters, he said.
“There were many people who were told they should change voting stations,” the journalist said. “They were relocated very far away – 45 km [30 miles],” a distance that would likely deter them from casting a ballot.
Such confusion, however, may have been inevitable; both officially registered voters and anyone with an identity card could vote. The latter group can send an SMS to with their ID number to receive their voting station, but the system was down this morning, according to the electoral commission. It was working by mid-afternoon.
These minor difficulties seem unlikely to have an impact on the vote's credibility or ability to proceed. So far, political parties have also expressed pride and confidence in the balloting.
“I don't think any election process is mistake free,” says Muasher of the NDI observer mission. “What's encouraging is that the political parties themselves expect this to be fair and have every confidence in the higher commission and have no concerns that the commission intends to interfere with the process in any way.”
Muasher expects an announcement of the results sometime on Monday.
In the meantime, Tunisians shout at foreign journalists they easily pick out of the crowd: “Aujourd'hui, c'est la fete!,” they cry with pride. Today is the time to celebrate.
“Tunisians have showed that they have been ready for democracy for a long time,” Abdel Wahab Hani, president of the Al-Majd political party said in a phone interview. “What's important to us is the legitimacy of democracy, both today and tomorrow.”