TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisians voted Sunday in an election seen as pivotal to establishing democracy in the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, with security forces deploying heavily to avert extremist attacks.
When polls opened at 7am (0600 GMT), dozens of voters were already queuing outside one polling station in Marseille Street in central Tunis, an AFP correspondent reported.
The North African nation has been hailed as a beacon of hope compared with other chaos-hit countries like Libya and Egypt where regimes were also toppled. But its transition has been tested at times by militant attacks and social unrest.
Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa hailed Sunday’s vote as “historic”.
“The spotlight is on us and the success of this (vote) is a guarantee for the future… a glimmer of hope for this region’s young people,” he told local radio as he voted.
Jomaa had warned of possible attacks aimed at disrupting the country’s first post-revolution parliamentary election.
On Friday, Tunisian police killed six suspected militants – five of whom were women – in a raid on a house in the outskirts of the capital. A policeman was also killed in an earlier firefight with the suspects.
Up to 80,000 troops and police have been deployed in a bid to protect voters.
The country has flirted with disaster in recent years, particularly in 2013 when a rise in militant activity and the assassination of two opposition lawmakers threatened to derail Tunisia’s path to democracy after its 2011 uprising that inspired the Arab Spring protests.
The revolt ousted veteran autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in a coalition government and interim president that won praise from the international community.
Several parties competing for seats in parliament are fronted by former regime officials.
Although they have publicly sought to distance themselves from the repression and intimidation practised under the ex-president, many voters who took part in the revolution are angered at the prospect of Ben Ali associates returning to parliament.
Others accuse Ennahda – Tunisia’s largest party – and its secular allies of failing to address people’s needs as the economy remains weak and security incidents are on the rise.
“These politicians aren’t worth a minute of my time. They are incompetent and have impoverished the people,” said street vendor Bechir Bejaoui.
Five million Tunisians are eligible to vote in a closely monitored election that interim president Moncef Marzouki has dubbed a “defining moment”.