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Tunisian Islamist Party Takes Lead in Early Results

Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party prepared for coalition talks Tuesday as early results showed it dominating the Arab Spring's first free elections.

Ennahda took 15 of the 39 seats from five domestic polling districts in the new constitution-writing assembly, the ISIE elections body announced, stressing the provisional nature of the tally.

And results announced Monday showed Ennahda winning half of the 18 seats reserved for expatriate assembly representatives in an early vote held abroad last week.

This meant Ennahda had taken 24 of the 57 seats accounted for so far in the 217-member assembly that will rewrite Tunisia's constitution and appoint a caretaker government.

There were 27 polling districts in total on Tunisian soil, and six abroad.

"We will publish the results piecemeal. The mechanisms of counting demand time," ISIE secretary general Boubaker Bethabet said in Tunis.

The provisional results for the eastern coastal cities of Sousse and Sfax, Tunisia's second city, as well as Jendouba in the northwest and Kebili, a desert town in the center, put the leftist Congress for the Republic (CPR) in second place with six seats.

It was followed by the Petition for Justice and Development, a list led by independent candidate Hachmi Haamdi, a rich London-based businessman, with five seats, and the leftist Ettakatol with four.

The Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) followed with two seats, as did The Initiative, a party founded by a former minister in the cabinet of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali who was ousted in a popular uprising in January.

Massive numbers of voters Sunday elected members of the new assembly that will have interim authority to write laws and pass budgets.

It will decide on the country's system of government and how to guarantee basic liberties, including women's rights, which many in Tunisia fear Ennahda would seek to diminish despite its assurances to the contrary.

Ennahda has already claimed to have taken the biggest block of votes, between 30 and 40 percent -- hailing the start of what is expected to be complicated negotiations for a majority coalition.

To form a majority, Ennahda will have to negotiate with the next biggest parties, all on the leftist, liberal side of the political spectrum.

CPR leader Moncef Marzouki has insisted that no firm agreement was made in pre-poll talks with Ennahda that saw other leftist parties accuse his party of seeking "a pact with the devil".

But he defended the need to form a broad alliance to strengthen the assembly and give the caretaker government "the means to govern".

For its part, Ettakatol had refused all pre-poll approaches while insisting on its intention to be part of a national unity government.

The center-left PDP party, tipped as Ennahda's main challenger before the vote, conceded defeat on Monday.

Analysts have told Agence France Presse that Ennahda, even in a majority alliance, would be unable to "dictate" its program to the assembly, having no choice but to appease its alliance partners, a moderate-minded society, and the international community on whose investment and tourism the country relies heavily.

Leftist parties may also seek to form a majority bloc against Ennahda.

The Modernist Democratic Pole, a grouping of five liberal parties, said Tuesday that no official coalition talks have started, but stressed it would seek an alliance of democratic parties.

"We need the biggest possible force to represent and protect modernist values," leader Ahmed Brahim told AFP.

Ennahda says it models itself on the ruling AKP party in Turkey, another Muslim-majority country which, like Tunisia to date, is a secular state.

But its critics accuse the party of preaching modernism in public and radicalism in the mosques.

Even before the official results, Ennahda has sought to reassure investors of stability, and women that it will respect their equality, and said it was open to a coalition with any party "without exception".

Ben Ali was toppled in an uprising that sparked region-wide revolts which claimed their latest Arab strongman last Thursday with the killing of Moammar Gadhafi of Libya.

Tunisia's electoral system was designed to include as many parties as possible in drafting the new constitution, expected to take a year, ahead of fresh national polls.

The current interim government will remain in power until the assembly appoints a new president, not expected before November 9.

About 100 Tunisians protested Tuesday outside the headquarters of the ISIE against "fraud" they claimed had marred the country's first-ever democratic vote.

"No, no to fraud," chanted the group of mainly young people, calling for a probe into the finances of parties like Ennahda, widely suspected of being propped up by Gulf countries despite a ban on foreign funding for parties contesting the election.

But the European Union observer mission declared itself "satisfied" with the conduct of the polls, which it said were transparent with only "minor irregularities".

Source: Agence France Presse


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