Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist party tipped to take the biggest share of the vote in Tunisia’s first free elections today, said his party is not harboring fundamentalist elements and that extremists could be contained by giving them a place in the democratic system.
Voters hope the historic election will end nine months of fragile and discredited interim governments — and lay to rest fears that the corruption, police brutality and crooked legal system of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s despotic regime has largely remained in place since the revolution of Jan. 14.
The Ennahdha party is expected to take the biggest share of the vote. Once outlawed and brutally repressed, it was only legalized months ago, after Ghannouchi’s triumphant return from exile in London.
Well-funded and with strong grassroots support in the poorest areas, Ennahdha has positioned itself as a moderate Islamist voice that emphasizes democracy, consensus politics, family values, including lowering Tunisia’s high divorce rate. It has promised to respect Tunisia’s secular civil society upholding women’s rights, the most advanced in the Arab world.
Ghannouchi, whom followers call the Sheikh, has hammered home a moderate discourse. However, critics have raised concerns about the party rank and file, veterans of Ben Ali’s prisons and years of clandestine activity who are more militant and more fundamentalist. Many complain of a “double discourse” and suggest Ghannouchi says things to ensure the party’s victory, but will act differently once in power.
Ghannouchi said his party was “a broad umbrella party,” but rejected the notion that a fundamentalist strain could come to the fore after the election.
He said any countercurrents were “in the minority, not the majority ... No one in my party rejects the principles of democracy or believes there [is] a contradiction in Islam and democracy. Nor does anyone reject the equality of the sexes.”
Nor do they think “that Mr Ghannouchi is a representative of Islam or a spokesman of Islam or infallible,” he added.
After demonstrations last week against the screening of animated film Persepolis caused tensions, Ghannouchi said the minority of Salafist hard-liners could be contained if allowed a political voice.
“Democracy is capable of absorbing extremism,” he said, citing far-right parties in Europe.
“Tunisian society has firmly established moderate religious traditions,” he said, rejecting radical religiosity as imported from the Arabian Peninsula.
The elections will appoint a short-lived assembly to rewrite the Constitution before parliamentary and presidential elections. A complex proportional representation system means no one party can take a majority. Ghannouchi said this was “unfair” but he had accepted it because Tunisia needed a broad coalition government at this transitional stage.
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