By Andrew Hammond and Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - The main contenders in Tunisia's first free election after the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali held final campaign rallies on Friday, with both Islamists and their secular opponents claiming they would protect women and represent modernity.
Tunisians will vote to create a constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution and forming a new interim government before parliamentary and presidential elections expected next year.
The once-banned Islamist Ennahda party -- whose name means "renaissance" -- is seen as the front runner in the first such vote after Tunisians in January set off a wave of Arab uprisings when they ousted a man whose 23 years in power was based on rigged elections and security policies.
"The Ennahda supporter is moderate and peaceful, Muslim and contemporary. He wants to live in this age but wants to live with dignity and as a Muslim in this life," Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told a gathering of thousands at an open-air sports stadium in a low-income suburb of Tunis.
"They said Islam is the enemy of democracy, women, arts and creativity, but we will increase women's rights. Tunisia is safe in your hands, you are the protectors of the revolution."
"The people want renaissance again!" the crowd chanted, repeating one of the key slogans of a slick campaign that reflects Ennahda's desire to present itself as a modern Islamist party in the mold of Turkey's Justice and Development Party.
Banned under Ben Ali, the party has been at pains to allay fears of secularists and Western countries that it would roll back women's rights.
Many women at the event were not wearing the Muslim headscarf that most Islamist movements in the Arab world say women should wear. They included Suad Abdel-Rahim, a tall, glamorous Ennahda candidate who addressed the rally.
"Ennahda isn't just a political party, it's the renewal of Tunisia via this party. The renewal of Tunisia is not possible without Ennahda. I'm proud to be on their list," she said, adding Ennahda would demand the education ministry to ensure that curriculums promote Tunisia's Arab and Muslim identity.
Abdel-Rahim said Ben Ali had used women and secularism as a tool in the repression of opposition in his police state. "Before women were just a number, they were just used for propaganda," she said.
RALLY AGAINST EXTREMISM
Inside a hall in the Ariana district outside Tunis, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) said it was the true defender of modernity and secular gains in the face of Ennahda.
Islamist fundamentalists known as Salafis attacked a TV station this month for airing a film deemed as blasphemous. Ennahda says it has nothing to do with them, but its critics say the party is a natural home for radical elements.
"We are sure Tunisians will vote for moderation, not for extremism," said secretary general Maya Jribi. "Tunisia needs to protect the torch of moderation. My call to women is to vote to save their gains from the risks posted by extremism."
With a DJ on stage playing pop songs, the rally projected an image of youth and progress. "I'm young and Ennahda does not represent me. I love the PDP," said a placard held by a young boy.
Even if Ennahda wins, observers say the proportional representation system applied in Tunisia could limit its share to around 30 percent of the vote, while the PDP hopes to push as far as it can above 20 percent.
Both parties have hinted to other parties in recent days at post-election coalitions they could make to box the other in.
"The PDP is ready to govern but whatever the percentage of the vote, there is a need for an alliance of democratic forces," party leader Nejib Chebbi said after taking the stage to thunderous chants of "freedom, freedom, social equality!"
"We are going to build an alliance in the constituent assembly ... but if there is a balance of forces, we suggest a technocrat government," he added.
Ben Ali's government prevented Chebbi from standing against him in 2009 presidential elections.
Ghannouchi, Chebbi as well as Moncef Marzouki, head of the Congress for the Republic Party, and communist party leader Hamma Hammami are all seeking to benefit from reputations for suffering under the former ruler, now in exile in Saudi Arabia.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond)