By Patrick Markey and Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's main secular party that helped push ruling Islamists out of office last year is open to governing with them if 2014 elections do not produce a clear majority, its party chief said.
Three years after its uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia is preparing for its second free election that will complete a transition to democracy praised as a model of political compromise in an unstable region.
A technocrat cabinet took over after Islamist party Ennahda agreed to resign to end a political standoff that had threatened to derail the North African state's move away from autocracy.
Nida Tounes, formed to challenge Ennahda and whose 30 percent support in recent opinion polls equals that of the Islamists, hopes to benefit after two years of messy Ennahda-led government, its leader Beji Caid Essebsi told Reuters last week.
Talking at his party's headquaters in Tunis, Essebsi said that unlike Egypt or Libya, where Islamists and secular movements are openly hostile, exclusion is not on the cards in Tunisia, whose economy relies heavily on foreign tourism.
"The Islamists had their chance and they failed. I don't think that there were will be a new Islamist government," Essebsi, 86, a lawyer who was once parliamentary chief in the Ben Ali government, said.
"If Ennahda gets an important result and wins seats, that will be a reality we will have to acknowledge. We are democrats, and we don't exclude people who oppose us. If they win partially, then we will be obliged to discuss with them."
Since Ennahda stepped down at the start of this year, Tunisia has managed to complete its new constitution and achieve the kind of stability that has evaded other North African countries that ousted their leaders in the Arab Spring revolts.
Before that deal, tensions were high over the role of Islam in Tunisia's transition with opponents accusing Ennahda of being leniant on Islamist militants, including a group blamed for murdering two opposition leaders.
SECOND FREE ELECTION
Still, the country's national assembly needs to finalize a new election law in the next few months before the newly appointed electoral commission can set a date for the elections - the second ballot since the 2011 uprising.
A Paris-trained attorney, Essebsi - who was premier in a transitional post-Ben Ali government - was coy on his own plans. But he said he would consider running for office again if he was in good health and his supporters called for his candidacy.
"I am realist. If the elections are set, if I am in good condition, and evidently, if there is no other solution visible for Tunisia, then I will step forward," he said.
He said Nida Tounes wanted Tunisia to become more open to Europe, the country's main economic partner.
Tunisia still needs to push through reforms to subsidies and public spending to combat a budget deficit, and has been seeking financial aid from international lenders, Japan, Europe and the Gulf states.
Ennahda, whose leadership spent years in prison or exile under Ben Ali, has a strong party organization. But party officials acknowledge they made mistakes in their first opportunity at governing.
"Is it in Tunisia's interest to exclude Islamists, I don't believe so. We won't make the same mistake that Ennahda made when they tried to exclude us," Essebsi said.
Tunisia's stability after its uprising came partly because there was no widescale attempt to purge former regime officials from politics unlike in Egypt and Libya.
But Essebsi rejected criticism that his party's inclusion of members of Ben Ali's now-banned Constitutional Democratic Rally movement was undermining political advances made since 2011.
"This isn't a step back for the revolution," Essebsi said about former regime officials in Nida Tounes ranks. "In the end we have to leave the final word to the people."
(Editing by Louise Ireland)