Tunisians are heading to the polls on Sunday to vote in the country’s first free municipal elections since the removal of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his government in 2011.
While Tunisia has since voted in parliamentary and presidential elections, municipal polls have been delayed four times due to logistic, administrative and political hurdles.
“This Sunday will not be like other days. For the first time, the Tunisian people are called to participate in municipal elections, something that seems simple but it is very important,” Tunisian President Caid Essebsi said on Saturday.
He has called for a “massive turnout”, but observers expect a low attendance.
The municipal elections, enshrined in the new constitution and one of the demands of the revolution, mark the first tangible step of decentralisation since the end of Ben Ali’s rule.
But interest in the poll among Tunisians remains muted as struggles with corruption and poverty continue.
The country was hit by a wave of protest at the start of the year over a new austerity budget introduced by the government.
Experts predict Tunisia’s two political heavyweights – the Islamist Ennahdha movement and the secular Nidaa Tounes party – will come out on top in nearly every district.
More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, are running for office in Tunisia’s 350 municipalities.
Some 60,000 police and military personnel have been mobilised for the polls, while Tunisia remains under a state of emergency, imposed in 2015 after a string of deadly attacks.
Voting runs from 8am to 6pm local time (07:00-17:00 GMT) and results are expected in the coming days.
The municipal polls will be followed by legislative and presidential elections in 2019.
Tunisia’s Parliament adopted a new law on local authorities on May 1, only a few days before the municipal elections.
“The local government code is a major law. This is perhaps the most important law passed after the Constitution. This will completely change the development model in Tunisia. It’s the decentralization process”, said Tunisian Minister of Local Communities and Environment, Riadh Mouakher earlier this month.
The former law – which dates back to 1973 – recognised neither their administrative nor financial independence.