Tunisians lined up to choose from a diverse field of candidates on Sunday, in an unpredictable election for a new president at a time of economic pain in the young democracy.
With no overwhelming front runner 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 8 A.M. 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%.
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 October 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 near the cut-off point to make the second round, could make appeals likely.
Tunisia's president has direct control over foreign and defence policy while most other portfolios are handled by a prime minister chosen by parliament, for which an election will be held on October 6.
With that limited role, many candidates have emphasised their policies on security - an area in which Tunisia has improved since two jihadist attacks in 2015 killed scores of tourists, devastating the country's tourism sector.
A pair of armed soldiers stood outside each polling station Reuters visited.
Despite economic frustrations, many voters said they were proud of Tunisia's march to democracy.
Outside the capital, in the village of Sidi Thabet, six middle-aged men sat debating the merits of rival campaigns in a field under the shade of a gum tree, having pulled chairs over from the cafe opposite.
They each had the inky forefinger that showed they had voted, and were united in concern at the poor level of public services in a local economy based on growing olives, vegetables and fruit, though they supported different candidates.
"We all voted for different candidates but despite our differences, we are discussing it peacefully," said Noureddine Dridi, a service manager at a company.
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