Tunisians began voting on Sunday for a parliament that must address chronic economic problems at a moment when political newcomers are mounting a challenge to the established parties.
Voters queued outside polling stations in the capital Tunis, only eight years after rising up to throw off autocratic rule and introduce democracy in a revolution that inspired the “Arab Spring”.
But the failure of repeated coalition governments that grouped the old secular elite and the long-banned moderate Islamist Ennahda party to address a weak economy and declining public services has disillusioned many voters.
“After the revolution, we were all optimistic and our hopes were high. But hope has been greatly diminished now as a result of the disastrous performance of the rulers and the former parliament,” said Basma Zoghbi, a worker for Tunis municipality.
Unemployment, 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, is higher than it was under the former autocrat, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died last month in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Inflation hit a record 7.8% last year and is still high at 6.8%. Frequent public sector strikes disrupt services. Financial inequality meanwhile divides Tunisians and the poverty of many areas has become an important political theme.
Any government that emerges from Sunday’s election will face the competing demands of improving services and the economy while further reining in Tunisia’s high public debt, a message pushed by international lenders.
While the president directly controls foreign and defence policy, the largest party in parliament nominates the prime minister, who forms a government that shapes most domestic policy.