Polling stations across Tunisia open their doors Sunday to welcome voters in fresh parliamentary elections.
Voters will elect 217 members of parliament in the first elections after the adoption of a new constitution. Balloting is scheduled to last 12 hours amid high expectations for voter turnout.
There are 13,000 candidates from more than 90 parties competing for the 217 seats, spread across 33 districts, including six set aside for Tunisians living abroad.
The race is spearheaded by the Islamist Ennahda Party under the leadership of Rashid Ghannouchi and the Nida Tunis (Tunisia's Call) Party led by veteran politician Beiji Caid Essebsi.
Other parties, such as the leftist Popular Current under the leadership of Zouhair Hamdy, are eyeing particular seats. Small parties consisting of former officials of the regime of ousted president Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali have joined the race as well.
Tunisia entered a pre-polling moratorium on campaigning at dawn on Saturday. Local TV channels began to broadcast ads warning voters of vote buying, especially in poor areas.
The electoral campaign, which lasted three weeks, witnessed broad debate on the use of money for political ends.
Prime Minister Mehdi Juma, accompanied by Mohammed Chafik Sarsar, head of the Independent High Electoral Commission (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections – ISIE) and Minister of Interior Lofti Ben Jeddou, on Friday inspected the headquarters of ISIE near the capital.
In a message of reassurance to voters after fears of the return of terrorism, Ben Jeddou told reporters that assigned security units are ready to secure the electoral process, adding that his ministry has developed a security plan to address all possible scenarios. About 80,000 army and police have been deployed to secure Sunday's parliamentary elections.
The major parties stepped up public appearances shortly before the end of campaigning.
Ennahda Party held a mas rally Thursday night attended by tens of thousands in central Tunis in which Ghannouchi appeared confident of the return of his modernist Islamist party to power.
He said: "Today, Ennahda is stronger than ever." "When we left power, we were confident that we were coming back, and better than we were."
Ghannouchi's speech gave strong signals of his party's openness to leading a broad government of national unity.
In Gabès governorate in southeast Tunisia, Nida Tunis held a mass rally attended by about 5,000, according to estimates of the local newspaper Al-Shorouk.
Essebsi, 88-years-old, appeared wearing a flak jacket. He said that wearing the jacket was a sign of the deterioration of security in the country, blaming the ruling of "troika" led by the Ennahda movement for this state of affairs.
The president of Nida Tunis launched a surprise attack on the ISIE, saying it was formed on the basis of quotas when it was first elected by the Constituent Assembly. He described its performance as weak.
Essebsi said: "We are at the beginning of a Tunisian Spring not settled yet."
In a statement to Ahram Online, Al-Azhar Al-Ekremi, a Nida Tunis leader heading its electoral list in Ben Arous constituency, estimated the proportion of supporters of competing parties — including Ennahda — at about 40 percent.
In related developments, ISIE announced a final list of presidential candidates. Tunisia's presidential elections are scheduled for 23 November. The list consists of 27 candidates, including Interim President Moncef Marzouki.
Ennahda Party has refrained from proposing a candidate for the presidency.