Tunisians began casting votes in an unpredictable presidential election on Sunday where there is no overwhelming front-runner, with the young democracy’s economic ills dominating the agenda.
Polling stations opened at 8am (0700 GMT) from the capital Tunis on the Mediterranean coastline to the cork forests of the northwest, the mining towns of the interior and sand-swept Saharan villages in the south.
In the upmarket Tunis suburb of La Marsa, long queues formed outside polling stations. “These are really historic moments. I got here at 7am… to give my voice to our new leader who must protect our democracy,” said Lilia Amri, 36, a bank worker.
Tunisia threw off autocratic rule eight years ago in a revolution that inspired “Arab Spring” revolts in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, but it alone has enjoyed a peaceful transition to democracy.
However, a perceived decline in living standards since the 2011 uprising, with higher unemployment and inflation, has frustrated many voters and turnout for local elections last year was only 34%.
Heavily indebted, Tunisia’s next government, like its last, will have to navigate popular demands to relax public purse strings while foreign lenders push for spending cuts.
While foreign attention, especially in Arab countries, is focused on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, Tunisians have been engrossed by the fate of media mogul Nabil Karoui, running from behind bars on suspicion of money laundering and tax evasion, which he denies.
A court on Friday ruled he must stay in detention after his arrest last month, leading his supporters to claim he has been silenced.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, as well as two former prime ministers, a former president and the defence minister are among the two dozen candidates hoping to win outright or, if none of them win more than 50%, to advance to a second round run-off.
Two of the 26 still listed on the ballot papers have withdrawn in recent days to support an opposing candidate.