This picture shows empty chairs in front of an electoral poster of the Ennahda Islamist movement at the headquarters of the party in Ariana near Tunis. Tunisians living abroad voted Thursday in the first post-Arab Spring free election, three days before their compatriots at home go to the polls to turn the page on 23 years of autocratic rule. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)
(AFP)--Tunisians living abroad voted Thursday in the first post-Arab Spring free election, three days before their compatriots at home go to the polls to turn the page on 23 years of autocratic rule.
Expat Tunisians choose 18 of the 217 members of the constituent assembly, voting until Saturday in six "constituencies": two in France, one in Italy, one in Germany, one in North America and one for other Arab nations.
Tunisians living in former colonial ruler France will elect 10 of these 18 seats, in an assembly that will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.
Pollsters expect the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) to win the most votes, stoking fears Tunisia may swap a secular dictatorship for a religious one nine months after street protests toppled strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
"Operations have started in Paris. There's a lot of people, at least 200 in front of the consulate," said Ali Ben Ameur, head of the IRIE body organising voting abroad.
Historic opposition figure Kamel Jendoubi, who heads the overall election organising body ISIE was expected to vote in Paris' chic 16th arrondissement.
"We've been through some very difficult times, but I've had moments of great happiness," Jendoubi told AFP this week.
Almost one million Tunisians live abroad, with up to 500,000 in France alone.
Sallouha Maslinski, one of around 60,000 Tunisians eligible to vote in Germany, cast her ballot at the embassy in Berlin.
"It's a bit difficult because all of this is new for us," said the 50-year-old, who has spent almost half her life in Germany, referring to the large choice of electoral lists.
There are around 1,500 lists to choose from in the vote under the proportional representation system, aimed at avoiding the dominance of any single party, as has been the case for the last 50 years.
In Cairo, where Egyptians inspired by the Tunisian revolt in February toppled their own strongman ruler Hosni Mubarak after over 30 years in power as the Arab Spring gathered momentum, some voters were overcome by emotion.
"The first voters were very emotional. We saw a young woman crying, her hands shaking. Tunisians feel free," said polling official Negib Boularef.
Ennahda's critics say it is playing a double game, reassuring the general public but preaching radicalism in mosques. Ennahda says it is a modern party similar to Turkey's ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Votes cast abroad will be counted on Saturday and the results announced after voting ends in Tunisia itself on Sunday.
Turnout is the big unknown of the election, the first free vote after two decades of fallen strongman Ben Ali's rule during which the results of the rigged elections were always known well in advance.
Ben Ali, once backed by the West for his supposed role as a rampart against Islamisation, fled to Saudi Arabia a month into a leaderless uprising by Tunisians driven to the streets by social injustice, poverty and corruption.
The short transition period was marked by protests against the pace of change and sporadic violence across the country, under intense global scrutiny as the spearhead of the fast-spreading Arab Spring.
Despite the high stakes, however, overall voter interest is low in a complex electoral landscape that will see around 7.3 million potential balloters choose from more than 10,000 candidates.