Tunisia: electoral commission wants vote delay

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Posted: May 26, 2011 4:22 PM
Tunisia: electoral commission wants vote delay

Tunisia's electoral commission said Thursday it wants the first national election since the toppling of the country's longtime strongman delayed for three months.

The commission proposed holding the vote for a constituent assembly on Oct. 16 instead of in July to allow organizers more time.

"We didn't issue this report with a joyous heart, but keeping July 24 (as the date) would have been much worse," said Larbi Chouikha, a member of the commission.

The electoral commission pointed to "numerous shortcomings and deficiencies" in the organization of the election. It noted in particular that about 3 million Tunisians aren't included on the electoral database and hundreds of thousands others don't have any, or valid, identity cards.

The constituent assembly's main job will be to write a new constitution for the North African country after President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali fled the country in January following a popular uprising against his 23-year rule.

It was not clear whether the commission's decision was final or could be overturned by the interim government, which will examine the issue Tuesday. Earlier this week, the government recommended keeping the initial date.

Those in favor of holding the election in July had argued that an earlier vote would help bring political stability to the country. However, numerous political figures have said Tunisians need more time to become acquainted with the dozens of parties that have emerged.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that Washington was sympathetic to the challenges of organizing the country's first free elections.

"I don't want to put a timeline on it, but ... our feeling is that if they need more time to ensure free and fair, transparent elections, that that's OK," he told reporters in Washington.

Under Ben Ali, a single party known as the RCD, now officially dissolved, controlled the country and opposition parties represented in parliament were largely symbolic.

Meanwhile, a U.N. human rights expert said Thursday that Tunisia must investigate crimes committed by members of Ben Ali's regime.

The interim government should hold former officials accountable for abuses including torture of prisoners, said Martin Scheinin, the U.N.'s special investigator on human rights and counter-terrorism.

Tunisia's draconian terrorism laws were frequently used by Ben Ali's government to persecute opponents of the regime.

Scheinin said after a five-day visit to Tunisia that the country "has to come to terms with dark remnants of its past."

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Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.