Tunisia's Al-Nahda (or Ennahda, Annahda, etc.) Party is by all indicators leading the vote count with a strong plurality; the Party itself says it will win at least 30% and hopes for 40% in the vote for a constituent assembly. The secular parties are well behind, splitting the secular vote several ways. Once the final results are in, there will be a hue and cry among many Western commentators, who fear that Arab Spring is really going to result in an Islamist wave. I would urge everyone to calm down and await developments.
Al-Nahda leader and chief thinker Rached Ghannouchi has always insisted that he supports Tunisia's traditional openness on women's rights and points (as do other Islamists these days) to Turkey's AKP Party as a model of a party of Islamic roots but functioning within a secular society. Partly educated at the Sorbonne, he once dabbled with Nasserism, Syrian Baathism, and European-style socialism; he is not a stereotypical Islamist anymore than Tunisia is typical of other Arab societies. And he spent his years of exile not in Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Afghanistan, but in London.
Skeptics note that not everyone in Al-Nahda has always spoken as liberally as Ghannouchi, and one can cherry-pick quotes from Ghannouchi to raise alarms as well. Also, at 70, it's not clear whether the younger Islamists in the party, who grew to maturity during the years Al-Nahda was suppressed by the Ben Ali government, share his liberality.
The other point to make is that these being the first elections in Tunisia or anywhere since the revolutions of 2011, it is hardly surprising the parties that existed (albeit in opposition and without power) under the old regime have a better chance of success: after all, if Ben Ali repressed them, they must be on the right track. There is plenty of nervousness among Tunisian secularists about what a strong poll by Al-Nahda means, but that's because no one is really sure.
Although Islamists have held Cabinet posts in Jordan, Lebanon, and occasionally elsewhere in the Arab world, it's hard to judge how they will function in a real competitive system, except by analogy to very different countries such as Turkey or Malaysia. When relatively free elections were about to produce a victory for the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1992, the Army intervened and a civil war followed.
It's important, too, to bear in mind that precisely because Al-Nahda presents itself as a different sort of Islamic Party, many of those who voted for it may not be seeking a hard-core Islamist government. So long as Al-Nahda plays within the system, willing to form coalitions and make compromises, there may be little cause for concern. We are simply entering in to a whole new era in which elections are real, and that means the old expectations may not apply.
Al-Nahda will not have a majority unless the final vote shows a bigger sweep than most estimates do; it will have to cut bargains with others. Nor are Tunisians electing a government, exactly; the Constituent Assembly will set up an interim government while it writes a new Constitution, but Al-Nahda and other parties have said they favor a technocratic national unity government for the immediate period.
True, I wouldn't have voted for Al-Nahda, but I'm not a Tunisian. Al-Nahda's actual performance and willingness to work with secular parties will be closely watched (especially, I'm sure, in Egypt).
Democracy does not always mean the vote will go the way we want it to (that's how the old regimes worked). Before the commentariat erupts with much viewing-with-alarm, let's watch the process and hope that Al-Nahda means what it says.