Tunisian Islamists start coalition talks

Leftist parties may yet seek to form a majority bloc against Ennahda

Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party started coalition talks with leftist groups for a new executive Tuesday as early results showed it dominating the Arab Spring's first free election.
Ennahda took 28 of the 55 seats in nine domestic polling districts including the key cities of Sousse and Sfax, for a new constitution-writing assembly, the ISIE elections body announced, stressing the provisional nature of the tally.
And Mustapha Ben Jafaar, leader of one of the highest-placed leftist parties, Ettakatol, said: "Discussions have started with all the political partners, including Ennahda."
Massive numbers of voters turned out Sunday to elect a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution, appoint an interim government, and will have interim authority to write laws and pass budgets.
Results released on Monday showed Ennahda taking half of the 18 seats reserved for expatriate assembly representatives in an early vote held abroad last week.
This meant Ennahda had 37 of the 73 seats accounted for so far.
ISIE secretary general Boubaker Bethabet said the results would be published piecemeal, explaining: "The mechanisms of counting demand time". The final tally, initially due Tuesday, was now expected on Wednesday.
The interim results gave nine seats each to the leftist Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Petition for Justice and Development -- a grouping backed by London-based millionaire businessman Hachmi Haamdi with close ties to ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Haamdi's group is the target of several complaints of contraventions of the electoral code concerning the financing of his campaign and the alleged abusive use of his satellite television station for campaigning.
Ettakatol got four seats, prompting Ben Jafaar to proclaim himself willing to "assume the highest responsibility" in an interim executive.
A broad-based executive was required, he added, to avoid "polarisation between Islamists and modernists".
The Progressive Democratic Party, polled in second place before the vote, also got four seats.
The new assembly will decide on the country's system of government and how to guarantee basic liberties, including women's rights, which many in Tunisia fear Ennahda would seek to diminish despite its assurances to the contrary.
Ennahda has already claimed to have taken the biggest block of votes -- hailing the start of what are expected to be complicated negotiations for a majority coalition.
All of Ennahda's possible coalition partners are on the leftist, liberal side of the political spectrum.
Party executive member Abdelhamid Jlassi told journalists in Tunis that "there will be discussions with Ettakatol and the CPR".
Analysts say that Ennahda, even in a majority alliance, would be unable to "dictate" its programme to the assembly, having no choice but to appease its alliance partners, a moderate-minded society, and the international community on whose investment and tourism the country relies heavily.
Leftist parties may yet seek to form a majority bloc against Ennahda.
The Modernist Democratic Pole, a grouping of five liberal parties, said Tuesday it would seek an alliance of democratic parties.
"We need the biggest possible force to represent and protect modernist values," leader Ahmed Brahim said.
Ennahda says it models itself on the ruling AKP party in Turkey, another Muslim-majority country which, like Tunisia to date, is a secular state.
But its critics accuse the party of being moderate in public and radical in the mosques.
Even before the official results are known, Ennahda has sought to reassure investors of stability, and women that it will respect their equality, and said Monday it was open to a coalition with any party "without exception".
Ben Ali was toppled in an uprising that sparked revolts throughout the Arab world which claimed their latest strongman last Thursday with the killing of Moamer Gathafi of Libya.
Tunisia's electoral system was designed to include as many parties as possible in drafting the new constitution, expected to take a year, ahead of fresh national polls.
The current interim government will remain in power until the assembly appoints a new president, not expected before November 9.
About 100 Tunisians protested Tuesday outside the headquarters of the ISIE against "fraud" they claimed had marred the country's first-ever democratic vote.
"No, no to fraud," chanted the group of mainly young people, calling for a probe into the finances of parties like Ennahda, widely suspected of being propped up by Gulf countries despite a ban on foreign funding for parties contesting the election.
But the European Union observer mission declared itself "satisfied" with the conduct of the polls, which it said were transparent with only "minor irregularities".