Tunisians voted on Sunday in parliamentary elections that bring full democracy finally within their reach, almost four years after an uprising cast out autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to inspire the "Arab Spring" revolts.
The moderate Islamist party Ennahda and rival secular alliance Nidaa Tounes are favoured to win most seats in Sunday's vote, only the second free election in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has predicted his party will improve on the 37 percent of the vote it won three years ago in an election to a constituent assembly, which drew up the post-Ben Ali constitution.
Tunisia has fared better than its neighbours which also ousted long-ruling leaders during the 2011 revolutions, avoiding the large-scale violent turmoil suffered by Egypt and the outright civil war of Libya and Syria.
Where the role of Islam in politics dominated the first election in 2011, now jobs, economic opportunities and Tunisia's low-intensity conflict with Islamist militants are the main concerns of a country heavily reliant on foreign tourism.
After overcoming a political crisis that threatened to sink its new democracy, Tunisia approved a new constitution at the start of the year and won praise as a model for a region struggling with chaos and violence.
The large number of parties in Sunday's election, from conservative Islamist Salafist movements to Socialists, means a coalition government is the probable outcome. The 217-member assembly will choose a new prime minister.
"It is our duty as Tunisians to keep this flame alive to light the way for the Arab world," Ghannouchi said voting in the working-class Tunis neighbourhood of Ben Arous. "The Arab people are worthy of democracy. Islam and democracy do not contradict but go hand in hand."
Rached Ghannouchi (C), leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, gestures with his wife and two daughters Yousra (L) and Soumaya (2nd L) at a polling station during an election in Tunisia October 26, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
Vote turnout one hour before polls closed was approximately 51 percent, and around Tunis voting had looked constant and orderly, although with a few complaints from voters who had registered but found their names were not listed.
Out of more than 12,000 voting centres nationwide only five remained closed on Sunday for security reasons in Kasserine, where the armed forces are cracking down on Islamist militants near the frontier with Algeria, electoral authorities said.
Ennahda won most seats in the first election in 2011 and led a coalition before a political crisis over their rule and the murder of two secular leaders forced them into a deal to step aside for a caretaker premier.
Criticised for economic mis-management and lax handling of hardline Islamists, Ennahda leaders say they have learned from their mistakes in the early years after the revolution.
Nidaa Tounes officials say they expect the party and Ennahda to evenly share around 150 of the 217 seats being contested for a five-year term in parliament.
The Party headed by Beji Caid Essebsi and includes some former members of the Ben Ali's regime, see themselves as modern technocrats able to manage the economic and security challenges after the messy period of Islamist-led rule.
While Essebsi stood in front of queuing voters to cast his ballot in a Tunis suburb, he said "I voted for Tunisia. Long live Tunisia."
Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Tounes party, casts his ballot at a polling station in Soukra, Tunisia, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (Photo: AP)
"I always felt bad when I saw other countries freely voting and we couldn't. Now we have the chance and the freedom to do so and I hope we get complete democracy," said Wahid Zamely, voting in the well-off Soukra neighbourhood in the capital Tunis.
Among those secular parties looking for a place in the new assembly are some led by former Ben Ali officials, who portray themselves as technocrats untainted by the corruption and abuses of his regime.
"In this context, the two biggest parties - Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes - will probably set aside their ideological differences and work together to form a national unity government," Riccardo Fabiani at Eurasia Group said.
Jobs and Growth
The new government will need to foster growth and jobs for the many Tunisians who feel left out of any economic benefits from the revolution. But they will also need to take on the tough austerity measures to cut public subsidies.
Tunisia expects economic growth of between 2.3 and 2.5 percent this year, but needs to continue slashing subsidies to trim the budget deficit and impose new taxes, the kind of reforms asked for by international lenders.
Just as urgent is tackling the threat of the Islamist militants who have grown in influence since the fall of Ben Ali, including Ansar al-Sharia, which is branded a terrorist group by the United States.
Tunisian authorities had said militants would try to disrupt the elections. On Friday, Tunisian forces killed six people, including five women, after a stand-off with an Islamist militant group on the outskirts of Tunis.
Polls were to close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT). Results were not expected until after Sunday, and a new government may be formed only weeks later after deal-making among the parties to form a majority in the new parliament.