Voting under way in landmark Tunisia polls

Millions vote in cradle of Arab Spring to elect five-year parliament since they overthrew dictator Ben Ali in 2011.

Tunisians have been lining up to vote to choose a new parliament in the elections seen as a test of the country’s transition to democracy.

Voting opened at 7am (06:00 GMT) on Sunday to elect a five-year legislative assembly and will close at 6pm. More than 4,500 polling booths have been set up, with security forces deploying heavily to avert possible attacks.

Results are expected to follow shortly after.

Sunday’s general election, which will see the election of the 217-member legislature, is the first under the country’s new constitution and the second since the 2011 uprising that overthrew the regime of the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“I am so proud of being here,” Sami Rajhi, a 19-year-old student, told Al Jazeera as he queued to cast his first ever vote at a polling station in the capital’s northern neighbourhood of Menzah. “During the last elections, I was in tears when I saw all the pictures of my fellow citizens voting. Today, I am here to contribute to my country’s future. It’s a historic moment.”

More than 100 political parties are running. Former Ben Ali officials are allowed to run and are expected to win in regional cities where they remain popular.

More than 5.2 million people are eligible to vote, but there are concerns that turnout will be low despite widespread awareness campaigns educating citizens on the importance of voting.

Samira Gharbi, a 36-year-old mother of two, said she came to vote despite her disappointment with her own choices in the previous vote. Standing in line with her two children, Gharbi said she “came today to rectify. It is important to be here, to decide on the country’s future for the next 5 years.”

The Islamist Ennahda party and the secular party, Nidaa Tounes, are expected to be among the most popular parties.

Ennahda remains popular among the poor while Nidaa Tounes, led by 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 the country’s founding president Habib Bourguiba, and was then parliamentary speaker under Ben Ali.

His critics accuse him of seeking to restore the regime of the deposed leader, while his supporters say he is the only credible counterweight to Ennahda.

“Tunisians may be politically divided, but at least now they can choose which path they want to go down,” Al Jazeera’s correspondent Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Tunis, said.  

The Islamist-secular divide, however, will definitely die out after the elections as it is impossible for any single party to win a simple majority – parties will be forced to form a coalition government.

Tunisian media has reported cases of fraud including bribes in the run-up to the polls, and accused some political parties of intimidation. Such violations, however, could not be proven by the Independent High Authority for the Elections.

Security measures have been increased before election day and the country remains on alert following a siege and gun battle on the outskirts of the capital that left five women and one man dead.