TUNIS - Former Tunisian prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi on Saturday launched a new secularist political party aimed at counterbalancing Ennahda, the moderate Islamist group that swept to power in the first free elections last year.

Ennahda, which was banned under ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, won more than 40 percent of seats in a new constituent assembly in October and has gone on to form a government in coalition with two non-religious parties.

While a large number of small secular parties split the liberal and leftist vote, Ennahda, as the only major religious party standing, scooped much of the conservative vote and emerged as the single most powerful group in Tunisian politics.

Fearing a repeat of their disappointing performance when Tunisians go to the polls to vote for a full-term parliament in the first half of next year, secular groups and figures and members of Ben Ali's disbanded RCD have scrambled to merge or form new and more powerful alliances, with limited success.

At a meeting that attracted some 2,000 followers in Tunis on Saturday, Essebsi said it was time for secular parties to retake the initiative from Ennahda.

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