TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisians elected a new parliament on Sunday bringing full democracy within their reach almost four years after an uprising cast out autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired the “Arab Spring” revolts.
Official results were not expected until after Sunday, but moderate Islamist party Ennahda and rival secular alliance Nidaa Tounes are favored to win most seats in only the second free election in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled into exile.
Tunisia has fared better than its neighbors which also ousted long-ruling leaders during the 2011 revolutions, avoiding the large-scale violent turmoil suffered by Egypt and the outright civil war of Libya and Syria.
While the role of Islam in politics dominated the first election in 2011, now jobs, economic opportunities and Tunisia’s low-intensity conflict with Islamist militants are the main concerns of a country heavily reliant on foreign tourism.
After overcoming a political crisis that threatened to sink its new democracy, Tunisia approved a new constitution at the start of the year and won praise as a model for a region struggling with chaos and violence.
The large number of parties in Sunday’s election, from conservative Islamist Salafist movements to Socialists, means a coalition is the probable outcome before the 217-member assembly selects a new prime minister.
“It is our duty as Tunisians to keep this flame alive to light the way for the Arab world,” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said voting in the working-class Tunis neighborhood of Ben Arous. “The Arab people are worthy of democracy. Islam and democracy do not contradict but go hand in hand.”
Electoral authorities said announcing a preliminary count would be impossible on Sunday with polling station tallies still arriving, but they expected partial results for the parliamentary ballot by Monday morning.
Turnout as polls closed was 60 percent of registered voters, according to initial results.
Ennahda urged parties to wait until official announcements, while Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi suggested his party had “indications” it was ahead, but gave no details. Nidaa Tounes said it would accept the results if there was no fraud.
In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama praised Tunisia for the vote, calling it an “important milestone” in the country’s transition and an example for the region about consensus and political pluralism.
After the revolt, Ennahda won most seats in Tunisia’s first free election in 2011 and formed a coalition before a political crisis over their rule and the murder of two secular leaders forced them into a deal to step aside for a caretaker premier.
Criticized for inexperience, economic mis-management and lax handling of hardline Islamists during their government, Ennahda leaders say they have learned from their mistakes in the early years after the revolution.
Nidaa Tounes politicians, who include some former members of the Ben Ali regime, see themselves as modern technocrats able to manage the economic and security challenges after the messy period of Islamist-led rule.
“I always felt bad when I saw other countries freely voting and we couldn‘t. Now we have the chance and the freedom to do so and I hope we get complete democracy,” said Wahid Zamely, voting in the well-off Soukra neighborhood in the capital Tunis.
Among secular parties looking for a place in the new assembly are some led by former Ben Ali officials, who say they are untainted by the corruption and abuses of his regime.
Their return reflects the kind of compromise and consensus that has helped Tunisia avoid the confrontations seen in Libya and Egypt where disagreements over the role of Islamists and former government officials have disintegrated into violence.
During last year’s crisis, Tunisia’s Islamist and secular parties managed to put aside rivalries, and, cajoled by Tunisia’s powerful trade union movement, eventually reached a compromise deal to put the democratic transition back on track.
With no party likely to win outright, weeks of parliamentary deal-making may follow the results before a new government is formed. Presidential elections are also due next month with a second round scheduled for December.
“In this context, the two biggest parties - Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes - will probably set aside their ideological differences and work together to form a national unity government,” said Riccardo Fabiani at Eurasia Group.
Whoever forms that coalition, the new government will need to foster growth and jobs for the many Tunisians who feel they missed out on any economic benefits from the revolution.
Tunisia expects economic growth of between 2.3 and 2.5 percent this year, but the next government will have to continue slashing subsidies to trim the budget deficit and impose new taxes -- the kind of reforms demanded by international lenders.
Just as urgent is tackling the threat of the Islamist militants who have grown in influence since the fall of Ben Ali, including Ansar al-Sharia, which is branded a terrorist group by the United States.
Tunisian authorities had said militants would try to disrupt the elections. On Friday, Tunisian forces killed six people, including five women, after a stand-off with an Islamist militant group on the outskirts of Tunis.
Additional reporting by Mohamed Agoubi; Editing by Angus MacSwan, David Stamp and Crispian Balmer