TUNIS — Tunisia’s moderate Islamist political party emerged Monday as the acknowledged leader in elections for a constitutional assembly and began talks to form a unity government with a coalition of liberals in a rare alliance that party leaders hailed as an inclusive model for countries emerging from the tumult of the Arab Spring.
By Monday afternoon, Tunisian liberal parties said they were entering discussions to form a government led by their Islamist rival, Ennahda, after it swept to a plurality of about 40 percent in preliminary vote tallies. The acceptance of the results by rivals signaled the beginning of a partnership seldom seen in the Arab world, where Islamists’ few opportunities for victories at the voting booth have sometimes led to harsh crackdown or civil war.
In neighboring Algeria, an electoral victory by Islamists 20 years ago set off a military coup and a decade of bloodshed, and in the Palestinian territories, the sweep to victory of Hamas in 2006 elections led to a showdown with the West, a split in the government and armed conflict in Gaza.
Tunisia’s was the first election of
the Arab Spring, held to form an assembly that will govern while it writes a constitution, 10 months after the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Islamists cheered the results as a harbinger of their ascent after revolts across the region. Islamists in Egypt are poised for big victories in parliamentary elections next month and their counterparts in Libya are playing dominant roles in its post-Qaddafi transition.
“This proves that there is no Islamist exception, no Arab exception about democracy,” said Essam el-Erian, a leader of the new political party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “We are as democratic as any country.”
In Tunisia and elsewhere some are wary of the Islamists’ surge, arguing that party leaders sound moderate now but harbor a conservative religious agenda.
Tunisia, arguably closer to Europe than the other states swept up in the political upheaval of the past year, is widely viewed as having the best chance of establishing a genuinely pluralistic model of government.
Leaders of Ennahda noted that their party championed a greater commitment to the principles of Western-style liberal democracy than any other Islamist party in the region, and they said they hoped their example would help lead other Islamists in a similar liberal direction.
“We are the most progressive Islamic party in the region,” said Soumaya Ghannoushi, a British newspaper columnist and a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is the daughter of Ennahda’s founder and acts as a party spokeswoman.
“Accepting each other, accepting pluralism, accepting diversity and trying to work together — this is the lesson Ennahda can give to other Islamic political movements,” she said.
In countries like Egypt, where Islamists are more ideologically divided, Ennahda’s victory was sure to embolden those who favor a more liberal approach, including some within Egypt’s mainstream Muslim Brotherhood as well as breakaway groups like the New Center Party or a new party founded by former leaders of the Brotherhood Youth — groups already drawn toward the thought of Ennahda’s founder. But in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood also faces competition from new parties formed by ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, who seek an explicitly Islamic state.
Those already inclined to follow the Ennahda example “are not the most important players right now in the Islamist movement in Egypt,” argued Prof. Samer Shehata, a scholar of the region at Georgetown University. As a result, he said, Egypt’s secular liberals are likely to view the strong showing of Tunisia’s Islamists with “great concern.”
The final margin of victory for Ennahda remained to be seen Monday as Tunisian authorities continued to tabulate results. In the interest of transparency, officials counted the votes in the presence of observers in each polling place after closing Sunday night and posted the tally on the door, enabling political parties to compile their own rough estimates by Monday afternoon. Though reliable statistics were unavailable, observers said turnout had exceeded expectations. Some voters waited in line for as many as six hours.
In a news conference to announce its success, an Ennahda spokesman said the party had confirmed winning a plurality of more than 30 percent of the vote and the largest share in every district. A top party official, Ali Larayedh, said in an interview that Ennahda expected that the final result would be closer to 50 percent.
The Progressive Democratic Party, a fierce critic of Ennahda and considered its chief liberal rival, failed to win much support. Instead, Ennahda is discussing a coalition with two less confrontational liberal parties, the Congress for the Republic, founded by the human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, and Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, known by the Arabic name Ettakatol.
Ennahda officials say their interim government will focus on economic development and internal security, not moral issues. Their candidates and leaders focused on the same practical themes on the campaign trail.
Acknowledging a strong tradition of women’s rights in Tunisia that is unusual for the region, the party’s officials have repeatedly pledged to promote equal opportunities in employment and education as well as the freedom to choose or reject Islamic dress like the head scarf.
The party’s founder, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, often says that Ennahda is not a religious party and claims no special authority in interpreting Islam. Instead, he says, the party’s members merely draw their values from Islam.
The party recently decided to call itself Islamic instead of Islamist because the latter term evokes theocracy to Westerners; in practice, however, its members still sometimes call themselves Islamists.
But Ennahda has not hesitated to capitalize on Islam’s popularity or prestige in the eyes of voters.
Its supporters sing religious songs at rallies, its speakers quote freely from the Koran and its leaders often talk about protecting the right to practice Islam after decades of pressure from Tunisia’s secular dictators.
Supporters of Ennahda can often be heard encouraging others to vote for “God’s party.” And some have said they expect Ennahda to improve the moral character of Tunisians by imposing restrictions on alcohol and profanity or blasphemy in popular culture, and even on what women are allowed to wear.
But in an interview, Ms. Ghannoushi, the party founder’s daughter (she uses a slightly different English spelling for her surname) and a professional woman who wears a head scarf, said that those with such expectations would be disappointed. “That is not in the program of Ennahda,” she said.
Hend Hasassi contributed reporting.