TUNIS: Tunisians lined up to choose from a diverse field of candidates on Sunday (Sep 15), in an unpredictable election for a new president at a time of economic pain in the young democracy.
With no overwhelming frontrunner among the 26 candidates whose names appear on the ballot, the difference between losing and making a second-round run-off between the two with most votes could prove narrow.
Polling stations opened at 8am (0700 GMT) from the capital Tunis on the Mediterranean coastline to the cork forests of the northwest, the mining towns of the interior and sand-swept Saharan villages in the south.
In the upmarket Tunis suburb of La Marsa, long queues formed outside polling stations.
"These are really historic moments. I got here at 7am … to give my voice to our new leader who must protect our democracy," said Lilia Amri, 36, a bank worker.
Tunisia threw off autocratic rule eight years ago in a revolution that inspired "Arab Spring" revolts in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, but it alone has enjoyed a peaceful transition to democracy.
However, a perceived decline in living standards since the 2011 uprising, with higher unemployment and inflation, has frustrated many voters and turnout for local elections last year was only 34 per cent.
In the central Lafayette district of Tunis, dozens of people stood patiently queuing in the Rue de l'Inde primary school in a whitewashed stucco courtyard under sky blue wooden shutters.
Kholoud Alwi, 27, said none of the candidates had convinced her. "But I have to vote. It's important for the country," she said.
Heavily indebted, Tunisia's next government, like its last, will have to navigate popular demands to relax public purse strings while foreign lenders push for spending cuts.
Many voters are disillusioned. In the poor Ettadamen district, Mouaz Chneifiya, a 42-year-old unemployed man, was sitting in a cafe and said he would not vote.
"Since the election we've been getting promises and nothing is done on the ground, so why vote? The elections will end and the promises will be dropped as soon as they get into office like in past elections," he said.
While foreign attention, especially in Arab countries, is focused on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, Tunisians have been engrossed by the fate of media mogul Nabil Karoui, running from behind bars.
A court on Friday ruled he must stay in detention after his arrest last month on suspicion of money laundering and tax evasion, which he denies. His supporters say he has been silenced.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, as well as two former prime ministers, a former president and the defence minister are also standing. Two of the 26 candidates have withdrawn in recent days to support a rival, though their names still appear on the ballots.
With so many in the race, Sunday's vote could produce a very close outcome, with few votes separating the two candidates who make the second-round run-off, due by Oct 13, from the others.
The election was brought forward after the death in July of the incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi.
Analysts have warned that a close outcome, with several candidates nea