TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisians elect a new parliament on Sunday as the prospect of a full democracy finally comes within their reach, four years after they cast out autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisia has fared better than neighbors who also ousted their own long-ruling leaders during the Arab Spring uprisings, largely avoiding their polarization and chaos even though it faced similar tensions over Islamist versus more secular rule.
But where 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.
The moderate Islamist party Ennahda and rival secular alliance Nidaa Tounes are favored to win most seats in Sunday’s vote, only the second free election in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled into exile.
But the large number of other parties, from conservative Islamist Salafist movements to Socialists, means a coalition government is the probable outcome. The 217-member assembly will choose a new prime minister.
Ennahda won most seats in the first election and led a coalition before a 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 economic mismanagement and lax handling of hardline Islamists, Ennahda leaders say they learned from their mistakes in the early years after the revolution.
But Nidaa Tounes, which includes some former members of the Ben Ali regime, see themselves as modern technocrats able manage economic and security challenges after the messy period of Islamist-led rule.
“Ennahda are the only party we can rely on after the revolution, despite the mistakes they made,” said Hatem Kamessi, sports teacher attending an Ennahda rally in Tunis. “After the first election, they didn’t have the experience.”
Among those secular parties looking for a spot in the new assembly are some led by former Ben Ali officials, who portray themselves as technocrats untainted by the corruption and abuses of his regime.
Their return reflects the kind of compromise and consensus that has helped Tunisia avoid confrontations seen in Libya and Egypt where disagreements over the role of Islamists and former regime officials have erupted into violence.
That compromise and a proportional electoral system mean the two main players will seek deals with minor partners to form a majority in parliament and have a stronger say in forming the new government.
“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,” Riccardo Fabiani at Eurasia Group said.
New government will need to foster growth and jobs for the many Tunisians who feel left out of any economic benefits from the revolution. But they will also need to take on the tough austerity measures to cut public subsidies.
Tunisia expects growth of between 2.3 and 2.5 percent this year, but needs to continue slashing subsidies to trim the budget deficit and impose new taxes, the kind of reforms requested by international lenders.
Just as urgent is tackling the threat of hardline Islamist militants who have grown in influence after the fall of Ben Ali, including the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is branded a terrorist group by Washington.
Tunisian authorities had warned militants would seek to disrupt the elections. On Friday, Tunisian forces killed six people, including five women, after a standoff with an Islamist militant group on the outskirts of Tunis. The raid was the latest operation in Tunisia’s crackdown on militants.
Additional reporting by Tarek Amara and Hani Amara; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky