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Tunisia offers a rarity in North Africa: calm after an election

Tunisia offers a rarity in North Africa: calm after an election
Chafik Sarsar, president of the Tunisian election commission, speaks at an Oct. 30 news conference in Tunis announcing the preliminary results of recent legislative elections. (Mohamed Messara / European Pressphoto Agency)

In a region torn by turmoil, the North African nation of Tunisia this week showed itself to be an anomaly.

It held a peaceful election that was hailed by monitors as generally free and fair. The Islamists who lost calmly acknowledged defeat even before official results were released early Thursday, and offered to take part in a future government -- if invited.

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The secular Call of Tunisia party garnered the biggest share of parliamentary seats in Sunday's election, winning 85 out of 217, Tunisia's election commission announced. The party brings together conservative politicians who served under the previous government in a front with leftists and Arab nationalists.

They defeated Nahda, the Islamist party that won the highest number of votes in the 2011 parliamentary poll. It took only 69 seats this time. The party lost ground in much of the country, suffering in particular from the perception that it had failed to deliver on promises of economic development.

The official results bore out exit polls and preliminary tallies.

The election result frustrated some followers, as had the party's concession of power at the end of 2013 amid political infighting. However, party leader Rachid Ghannouchi reminded backers that they all had a stake in democracy.

The results are subject to challenge in the event of voting irregularities, but final certification – which will take some days – was not expected to substantially alter the result.

Tunisia, which rose up more than three years ago against longtime dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali, has had what is generally viewed as the most successful democratic transition to date in the wake of the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the region. However, it continues to grapple with a high rate of joblessness and a simmering Islamist insurgency.

Call of Tunisia will now begin efforts to form a government, for which it will need to enlist coalition partners. Smaller parties trailed the two main rivals, splitting the remaining parliamentary seats among themselves.

Substantive coalition negotiations are unlikely to begin until after the presidential election next month. Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa's technocrat government is set to remain in power until early 2015, his advisors confirmed.

A consensus government is likely, to avoid the kind of partisan standoff that paralyzed the country for much of last year. Call of Tunisia's chief, Beji Caid Essebsi, is considered a leading candidate in the presidential race.

Nahda is not fielding a candidate of its own, but is likely to throw its formidable support behind another of the contenders.

Ryan is a special correspondent. Staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

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