By David Rosenberg

Tunis, Tunisia

Tunisians are getting their first taste of democracy this week as campaigning gets underway for elections on Oct. 23 - and the flavor of the day, for now at least, is the mild form of Islam espoused by the Ennahda Party.

Polls show the party, which was banned before the revolution that forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile last January, is leading in the race for seats in a constituent assembly that will write a new constitution for the North African country. But the polls also show a lot of voters are undecided, which makes the three-week campaign season critical.

"Many people are worried about the weight of the Islamic party Ennahda. They seem to have a lot of money and they seem to be very well organized," Masoud Ramadani, an activist with the Tunisian Human Rights Union, told The Media Line. "People aren't very optimistic, but they are looking forward to elections anyway, saying it might be the first step toward solving some of the problems, the security situation and unemployment."

Tunisia became the first country to oust its leader in the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Like Egypt and Libya, which have followed the same path, it is now debating the proper role of Islam in its emergent democracy. The issue concerns not only the region's voters, but Western powers, which fear Islamic regimes would turn hostile.

In all three countries, Islamic groups have proven to be most organized, topping opinion polls and setting the political agenda, but have taken pains to present themselves as progressive and democratic. Ennahda is running a female candidate who does wear the head covering favored by Islamists as its candidate in the capital of Tunis and its leaders have repeated stressed its fealty to democracy.

"All the values of democracy and modernity are respected by Ennahda. We are a party that can find a balance between modernity and Islam," its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, told Reuters in an interview on Monday, rejecting critics' accusations that the party's moderation is a cover for extremist views.

A survey by the Institute of Survey and Data Processing Statistics (ISTIS) and the Tunisia African Press Agency in August showed 22.8 percent of voters back Ennahda. That put it way ahead of its biggest rivals. The number two-ranked Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) garnered support from just 8.7 percent of those surveyed.

Ramadani said he is worried that Ennahda, with its money and organization, will be able to cement its early lead in the opinion polls to an election victory, thereby dominating the critical process of setting the terms for Tunisia's democracy.

"We don't know where it is coming from, and the government is too weak to address the problem or to investigate it," he said. "I don't want to see any political party have supremacy in writing the constitution."

But Ennahda can't plan its victory celebration just yet. The same poll found that almost 57 percent of Tunisians said they had no preference for any of the political parties. Two-thirds of those who intend to vote have not yet decided on their party and among those who have decided nearly half say they may change their mind by Election Day.

Other polls have confirmed apathy among Tunisian voters. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) found that 43 percent of Tunisians were unaware that the upcoming vote is for a constituent assembly. Another, by Sigma, showed that almost a third of Tunisians don't yet know who they will vote for.

Noureddine Miladi, a senior lecturer in media and sociology at the University of Northampton, told The Media Line that many of the polls are unreliable and said from his reading of the campaigns and social networks he believes Ennahda's strength has been overestimated.

"The Islamic party has a kind of credibility, but there are other parties that have weight which we've seen in the launch of election campaign. I don't buy the idea that Ennahda will have a kind of overwhelming win in these elections," he said.

The voting has been complicated by the rocky transition Tunisia has been making in the post-revolutionary. The country has been wracked by recurrent violence, accusations that the government is still answerable to the Ben Ali regime and by an unsteady economy.

Tourist arrivals, a mainstay of the economy, fell by more than a third in the first nine months of the year, while unemployment remains in the double-digits and gross domestic product dropped by 0.5 percent in the second quarter. The International Monetary Fund estimated last month that the economy would show nil growth in 2011.

Some 7 million Tunisians are eligible to vote but only a little over half have registered. They have to choose from a plethora of parties (111) and candidates (more than 11,000 many running as independents). With 217 seats in the assembly that means that on average a bewildering 50 candidates are competing for each one.

Miladi estimated that only four or five would emerge from the vote with seats in the constituent assembly. Furthermore, he contended, the difference between the parties on the role of Islam in the new Tunisia is not that wide. They want to see women's rights, which were expanded under the Ben Ali regime to be among the most progressive in the Arab world, preserved, he said.

"Most of the big political parties agree on the bottom line, which is a constitution that says Tunisia is an Arab Islamic country," he said. "All of them agree that Islam should remain as a private practice, including Ennahda from what I've seen."


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