TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunis was filled with rival rallies throbbing with music as the political parties marked the end of three weeks of campaigning for the country's first truly free and multiparty elections since its independence from France in 1956.
Tunisians on Sunday will elect an assembly that will appoint a new government and then write the country's constitution to replace a half-century-old dictatorship that was overthrown by a popular uprising on Jan. 14.
Tunisia's revolution set off a series of similar uprisings across the Middle East that are now being called the Arab Spring, and if these elections produce an effective new government they will serve as an inspiration to pro-democracy advocates across the region.
The elections are also being closely watched because the front-runner, Ennahda, is a moderate Islamic party whose victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.
The campaign season has been marked by controversies over advertising, fears over society's religious polarization and concerns about voter apathy, but the final rallies at least were marked by optimism and excitement.
Late into the night Friday along the capital's elegant, tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue honking cars bearing campaign posters swerved along the wide street where protesters back in January faced down the regime's minions and forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee.
Party activists engaged in last-minute campaigning along the packed cafes and crowded sidewalks filled with traffic.
"There is almost a sense of wonderment that they have gotten as far as they have," said Les Campbell, the director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute, pointing out that Tunisia just 10 months ago had been one of the most repressive countries in the region.
"The first thing that strikes me is that the political parties are expressing confidence in the officials running the elections and that's good news and a good predictor of things to come," he added.
Strict rules about campaign advertising in the streets and in the media have made for a curiously muted campaign compared with many countries in the midst of elections, but in the past few days there has been a sense that Tunisians are increasingly excited about the vote.
There are 7.5 million potential voters, though only 4.4 million of them, or just under 60 percent, are actually registered. People can vote with their identity cards, but only at certain stations, which some fear may cause confusion during Sunday's polls.
Voters in each of the country's 33 districts — six of which are abroad — have a choice of between around 40 and 80 electoral lists, consisting of parties and independent candidates.
It's a long way from previous elections when voters only had to take the red ballot for the ruling party, place it in an envelope and drop it in the ballot box. Many voters have expressed some bewilderment at the range of choices.
In another sharp contrast to past contests, what was once one of the most closely monitored societies has now thrown opens its doors to election observers — 500 foreign ones alongside 5,000 locals — and journalists. The election commission was momentarily swamped in the days before the election as it tried to process 1,500 applications for credentials.
Polling stations will be guarded by soldiers as well as police this time around, and it will be the army gathering up ballot boxes rather than the security forces, which many still associate with the old regime.
A proportional representation system will likely mean that no political party will dominate the assembly, which is expected to be divided roughly between the Ennahda party, centrist parties and left-wing parties, requiring coalitions and compromises during the writing of the constitution.
The campaign's final week was marred by a controversy over a private TV station broadcasting an award-winning French-Iranian animated film that included a depiction of God found sacrilegious by religious conservatives.
Thousands demonstrated against the Nessma station and there were clashes in the streets with police. Ultraconservative Muslims, known as Salafists, even firebombed the home of the station's owner.
The incidents were used by many of the centrist and leftist parties as evidence that radical Islamists were trying to roll back the country's secular and progressive traditions, especially in regard to women's rights.
Kamel Labidi, a dissident journalist who spent years in exile campaigning for greater press freedoms in Tunisia, maintains, though, that it had more to do with the immaturity of the country's media.
Labidi, who heads a commission to reform media in the country and draft a new press law, noted that Nessma and other private TV stations were run by people close to the previous regime and their coverage had been relentlessly one-sided.
"The election campaign is being done in the same media landscape with radio and TV inherited from Ben Ali," he said. "What worries me is the lack of fairness of the media outlets, which aren't giving room for different points of view."
In its final open-air rally on Friday, the other front-runner, the centrist Progressive Democratic Party, continued to hammer home its message of the campaign that it was the only party strong enough to defeat the "extremists," a veiled reference to Ennahda.
"We will continue to fight extremism and defend moderation and centrism, fear has no place with us," said party leader Maya Jribi, to thunderous applause from thousands of supporters.
Across town, at the stadium rally for Modern Democratic Axis, a coalition of leftist and independent parties, slogans against extremism and for social justice were also raised as Tunisian and then Western rock music thundered from the speakers.
At least 10,000 Ennahda supporters also rallied to the sound of music in a suburb of the city and, as the party has throughout the campaign, there was a careful effort to portray itself as a moderate group for all Tunisians.
"Ennahda says yes to women standing side by side with men," said Souad Abdel Rahim, the leader of the party's list of candidates in one of the Tunis districts. The pharmacist does not wear the Islamic headscarf common among many of the party's supporters and she delivered a message of women's empowerment and national revival.
"Women were used for propaganda during Ben Ali's time, but they will play a real role in the new republic," she said to the cheering crowd arrayed across the playing fields of a sports club.
The party's founder and leader, Rashid Ghannouchi took the podium as the sun set to the wild applause and acclaim usually reserved for rock stars.
He emphasized that Ennahda was a party for all Tunisians, from the religious to the secular, and congratulated Tunisians on a revolution that he said not only rocked the Arab world, but whose effects are now being felt as far away as Wall Street.
After warning against the possibilities of fraud in recent days, he chose the end of the campaign to strike a more conciliatory tone.
"We are satisfied with how elections have been conducted so far and if it continues like this and we lose, we will happily congratulate the victors," he said.