Tunisia delays new elections until Oct. 23

AP News
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Posted: Jun 08, 2011 10:37 AM
Tunisia delays new elections until Oct. 23

Tunisia will hold an election Oct. 23, not in July as planned, because conditions are not yet right for the first vote since the ouster of the country's autocratic president, the prime minister announced Wednesday.

Tunisia's fledgling experiment with democracy is being closely watched around the world because the popular uprising in the North African country sparked pro-democracy revolts around the Middle East.

The success or failure of elections in Tunisia would send a strong signal to other nations in the region.

"The world is watching us. Tunisia today has an extraordinary image because its revolution happened peacefully, without weapons," Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi said after announcing the new election date.

"The wind of freedom has blown through other countries ... but we will be the only ones to succeed in putting into place a democratic government," he added, implicitly referring to the fighting in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

The elections had been planned for July 24, but Tunisia's electoral commission proposed last month they be postponed, saying much more needed to be done to organize the vote, including putting 3 million Tunisians into the electoral database and ensuring hundreds of thousands of others get valid identity cards.

Those in favor of the July date had said it is needed to bring political stability to a country now experiencing simmering tensions and occasional deadly eruptions of violence.

Essebsi said the most important thing is to hold "free, transparent and credible" elections. The vote is for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution that would pave the way for legislative and presidential elections.

Tunisia's nascent political movements have said they need more time to prepare for elections in a country that was dominated for decades by the ruling party and heavy-handed security forces of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Under Ben Ali's 23-year reign, a single party known as the RCD, which is now officially dissolved, controlled the country. Opposition parties in parliament were largely symbolic.

The regime was finally brought down by a month of popular demonstrations that forced Ben Ali and his family to flee for Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, ushering in a period of political and economic uncertainty for this country of 10 million.

Once one of the most tightly controlled dictatorships in the region, Tunisia has witnessed an explosion of new political movements with 81 new parties officially registered.

More established political parties such as the center-left Progressive Democratic Party and the Islamist Ennahda originally opposed a delay in the elections, but have since rallied around the prime minister's speech.

"We are in favor of the approach of the prime minister and will use all our efforts to make the election date succeed," said Nourredine Bhiri of Ennahda.

Issam Chebbi, the leader of the PDP, meanwhile, said he "supported without reservation" the prime minister's speech.

The new assembly will decide, among other things, whether Tunisia gets a presidential or parliamentary system, and whether separation of religion and state becomes part of the law.

Since Ben Ali's departure, the country has continued to be wracked by strikes and protests, often by activists trying to keep pressure on the government to enact reforms.

"The government, which has only been in power for the last three months, does not have a magic wand to resolve all the problems in such a small amount of time," said Essebsi, calling for an end to the strikes and the sit-ins and pleading for patience.

The international community has expressed its support for Tunisia's transition to democracy and at the recent Group of Eight summit promised billions of dollars in economic aid over the next three years.

Dependent in a large part on tourism, the economy has been hammered by the uprising and accompanying unrest. Essebsi estimated that there are 700,000 unemployed people in the country.

On Tuesday, the official news agency said former presidential party members were involved in clashes in southwestern Tunisia that left 11 dead. Citing unidentified security forces, the TAP agency said members of the RCD were among 105 people arrested near the town of Metlaoui.