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Voter turnout appears high as Tunisians take to the polls for 'historic' vote

'The spotlight is on us,' Tunisia's Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said on Sunday as he voted.
Tunisians wait in the rain outside a polling station in Tunis' Sukra neighbourhood to cast to their vote in the country's first post-revolution parliamentary election (AFP)

Tunisians vote Sunday in an election seen as pivotal to establishing democracy in the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings.

When polls opened at 7:00 am (0600 GMT), dozens of voters were already queueing outside one polling station in Marseille Street in central Tunis, according to reports.

While reliable voter turnout figures were not immediately available on Sunday, anecdotal evidence - including longer lines at polling places - and observers on the ground seemed to indicate that turnout has been much higher than the elections in 2011.

A source who is monitoring the elections confirmed that turnout is higher this time, but said he could not offer figures while election monitoring continued.

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.

"People here are quite optimistic about the outcome of these elections. They consider today's event a move to a more stable period in the history of Tunisia," Ezzeddine Saidi, a university professor in Tunisia, told MEE. 
Saidi said the elections will bring an end to a transitional period that "witnessed serious security incidents and bad economic results"  
Its a transition that has been tested at times by militant attacks and social unrest. Apparent high voter turnout on Sunday, Saidi said, reflect the desire among Tunisians who have "a need for change, a need for a more secure future."
"The elections are going extremely well," said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Centre for the Student of Islam and Democracy, who estimated that voter turn out could exceed 80 percent. "In general, there is a very peaceful and joyful atmosphere."

As Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa voted on Sunday, he hailed the 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.

One Tunisian couple reportedly married on Sunday morning - and then headed to the polls to cast their votes.

Jomaa had warned of possible militant attacks aimed at disrupting the country's first post-revolution parliamentary election and, on Sunday, up to 80,000 troops and police were deployed in case of any attacks.  

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.

Troubled transition

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 Islamist 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".

Voters could be seen exiting polling stations with index fingers dyed in ink - a measure designed to prevent people casting multiple ballots - held up in celebration.

'Attached to democracy' 

The election is pitting Ennahda against secular rival Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) and an array of leftist and Islamist groups.

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. 

But Nidaa Tounes officials say they expect the party and Ennahda to split 150 of the 217 seats in the new parliament.

Nidaa Tounes chief Beji Caid Essebsi cut in front of queueing voters to cast his ballot in his constituency in a Tunis suburb. 

"I voted for Tunisia. Long live Tunisia," he said. 

Ghannouchi, who chose to wait in line to cast his vote, said he was encouraged by the long queues forming at polling stations. 

"I found a long queue and that made me happy as it shows Tunisians are very attached to democracy," the Ennahda leader said.  
Polls close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT). Election officials have until Friday to announce the results.

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