Tunisia’s presidential election on Sunday is the most unpredictable in its short experience of democracy, a contest with no overwhelming front-runner at a time of economic angst.
It will shape not only indebted Tunisia’s approach to foreign relations and the vexed issue of public spending, but also test its consensus model of politics and the way it practices democracy.
While outsiders, especially in Arab states, are watching the fortunes of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, many Tunisians have been engrossed by the candidacy of a media magnate who was imprisoned last month on suspicion of tax fraud, and whose campaign has focused on the poor.
However, after years of rising unemployment, high inflation and reduced spending on public services and subsidies, many Tunisians feel frustration with politics, adding to uncertainty over the outcome and turnout.
“Things aren’t clear. I still don’t see a candidate that is qualified and worthy of running Tunisia,” said Houda Ben Ayed, a woman waiting at a tram stop in Tunis.
Though Sunday’s vote is unlikely to produce a clear winner, with the two top candidates to hold a run-off if none of them win an outright majority, it will still influence a parliamentary election on October 6.
Tunisia’s revolution began with the self-immolation of a desperate vegetable seller in December 2010, then mass protests that forced strongman ruler Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to seek exile in Saudi Arabia and soon spread across the Arab world.
Eight years on, Sunday’s highly competitive, wide open election shows how Tunisia’s path to democracy has run smoother than in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen or Bahrain, where people attempted to follow its example in throwing off autocratic rule.
The televised debates between most of the 24 men and two women running for office were widely watched by voters hoping to whittle down their choices – a far cry from the unopposed 99% election victories under Ben Ali, now lying sick in a Saudi hospital.
The crowded field boasts some of Tunisia’s biggest names, including current and former prime ministers and the first ever presidential candidate from the country’s strongest party, as well as the detained media magnate, Nabil Karoui.
They represent a myriad of ideas unthinkable in most Arab elections, pitting secular liberals against moderate Islamists, free traders against economic protectionists and supporters of the 2011 revolution against those of the old regime.
No incumbent is running, since former President Beji Caid Essebsi died in July aged 92 and the interim president, Mohammed Ennaceur, did not stand.