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 in Saudi Arabia.
Tunisia has fared better than its neighbors who ousted their own long-ruling leaders during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, largely avoiding the polarization between competing desires for Islamist and more secular rule.
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.
After overcoming a political crisis that threatened to scuttle its fledgling 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 taking part in Sunday’s election, 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.
“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 and liberty,” said Wahid Zamely, 57, first in line to vote in the well-off Soukra neighbourhood in the capital Tunis.
Early turnout at six polling stations around Tunis looked constant and orderly, with only a few complaints from voters who had registered but found their names were not listed.
Out of more than 12,000 voting centers nationwide only five remained closed on Sunday for security reasons in Kasserine, where the armed forces are cracking down on Islamist militants near the frontier with Algeria, electoral authorities said.
Ennahda won most seats in the first election in 2011 and led 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 economic mismanagement and lax handling of hard-line Islamists, Ennahda leaders say they have 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 to manage the economic and security challenges after the messy period of Islamist-led rule.
At a polling station in the working-class Ben Arous neighborhood in southern Tunis on Sunday morning one voter said the only party he trusted was Ennahda.
“I don’t have any confidence in the other parties. They were all from the time of Ben Ali. Ennahda were always working over the last three years after the revolution,” said Mohamed Ali Ayad, an employee of a carmaker.
Among those secular parties looking for a place 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 government 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.
The 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 economic 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 asked for by international lenders.
Just as urgent is tackling the threat of hard-line 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 said militants would seek 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.