SHAFAQNA –Tunisians have flocked to polling stations since early hours of the day to choose a new parliament in elections seen as a test of democratic transition in the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring.
Sunday’s general election is the first under the North African country’s new constitution and the second since the 2011 uprising that overthrew the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Turnout defied most opinion polls, which had projected a decline in popular participation in the election of a 217-member legislature with a five-year term.
The forecasts were partly attributable to security concerns and the tense transitional period which Tunisia has witnessed since January 2011.
Polls opened at 7am (06:00 GMT) on Sunday and were expected to close at 6pm. More than 4,500 polling booths have been set up to receive more than 5.2 million eligible voters.
One of the places where turnout was perceptibly high in Oued Ellil, on the outskirts of the capital Tunis, where a siege and gun battle left five women and one man dead.
Al Jazeera visited a polling centre in Hay Al Ward One, in Oued Ellil, where the voting process was progressing smoothly thanks to a strong security presence.
Snoun Maher, the electoral officer in charge of the polling station, said turnout was high and there were no problems.
“I was surprised to see voters queuing even before the polling station opened. Everything is going well in terms of organisation. We haven’t found any difficulty,” Maher said.
At least 80,000 security personnel have been deployed around the country and up to 22,000 observers, 600 of them foreigners, are monitoring the elections.
Counterweight to Ennahda
More than 100 political parties are participating in the elections, including former Ben Ali officials who were allowed to compete and are expected to win in major cities where they remain popular.
The Islamist Ennahda party and the secular Nida Tounes are widely expected to emerge as the most popular parties.
Ennahda remains popular among the poor while Nida Tounes, led by veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi, will rely on the votes of the country’s long-established elites and those wanting a return to a more orderly era.
The 87-year-old Essebsi served as minister of the interior, defence and foreign affairs under Habib Bourguiba, the country’s founding president, and was then parliamentary speaker under Ben Ali.
His critics accuse him of seeking to restore the regime of Ben Ali, while his supporters say he is the only credible counterweight to Ennahda.
The Islamist-secularist divide could well become narrower after the elections given that most opinion polls show no single party winning a simple majority, pointing to the inevitability of a coalition government.
Tunisian media has reported cases of fraud including bribes in the run-up to the vote, and accused some political parties of intimidation. The alleged violations, however, could not be proven by the Independent High Authority for the Elections.