Tunisia holds first free municipal elections since 2011 revolution

Tunisians are voting in free local polls for the first time since the Arab Spring uprising seven years ago. The president says it's a crucial step in the country's road to democracy, but observers predict a low turnout.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time (0700 UTC) in Tunisia's municipal elections on Sunday.

The North African country has held parliamentary and presidential polls since the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, but local elections have faced repeated delays.

"For the first time the Tunisian people are called to participate in municipal elections, something that seems simple, but it is very important," Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said on the eve of the vote.

"This means that Tunisia continues establishing the democratic course."

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Fears about voter apathy

Essebsi called for a "massive turnout," but observers have said they expect voter numbers to be fairly low.

Tunisia has been lauded as the only democratic success story in the region after an uprising in 2011 that triggered the Arab Spring revolts.

However, persisting unrest, an economic slowdown, corruption and a series of militant attacks have led to growing apathy in the population of 11 million.

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The country was rocked by violent protests against rising prices and tax hikes in January after the government introduced a new austerity budget.

"These municipal elections won't change anything for us. We will always be on the same cart without wheels or a horse," 34-year-old Hilma, a housewife, told Agence France Presse.

Some 5.3 million people are eligible to cast ballots in the vote, in which more than 57,000 candidates are running for office in 350 municipalities. 

Candidates from the two major parties, the Islamist Ennahda movement and the secular Nidaa Tounes party, are expected to win in most districts.

Polls close at 6 .p.m. local time (1700 UTC), with final results expected by May 13.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Dark silhouettes in Tunis' Souqs

From a time when ͞the walls had ears to post-revolution struggles seven years later, Tunisians are proud to have won their freedom of speech.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Café Le Parlement

"Now, at least we can speak freely," proclaim Tunisians on the streets. Cafes, such as Le Parlement in Tunis, have become a forum for discussions and debates spurred on by the revolution.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Bullet hole in Bardo

Bardo,Tunisia's National Museum, was the scene of one of the two terror attacks in 2015, which left 24 people dead and the country's crucial tourism economy in tatters.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

The scene of the attack

Twenty tourists were killed In Bardo, and another 38 in the resort town Sousse. Tunisia also has the highest number of "Islamic State" recruits, and has fought against an Islamist insurgency in the country's border regions.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Post-revolution political assassinations

The murders of secularist politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid shocked the country in 2013; Tunis routinely sees demonstrators calling for justice.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Between football and apathy

Competing football club graffiti in Tunis suburbs. Some young Tunisians have pointed at the political apathy and disengagement, claiming that society focuses more on football rivalries than post-revolution politics.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Fighting for women's rights

A landmark law, which came into effect in February, made violence against women a criminal offence. Wafa Fraouis has been involved in women's issues since she was 15-years old. She was a member of the committees drafting the post-revolution constitution, enshrining gender equality in Tunisia's future. She is now director of Beity, the only shelter for vulnerable women in Tunis.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

A tantalizing glimpse of a better life

For many Tunisians, the only option to escape creeping poverty is the dangerous journey to Europe. Over 6,000 Tunisians reached Italy's shores in 2017 alone; over a third came in the space of two months, the sharpest increase since the 2011 revolution.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Discarded and forgotten

Inside a cafe, a group of men sit around plastic tables covered with coffee cups, as heaps of discarded cigarette butts pile underneath. "This is what unemployment looks like," says one of the regulars inside. At least three visitors in the small cafe have been deported from Italy.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

Escaping from their past

Marwan, a regular at this cafe, says many Tunisians leave to escape prison sentences, provide for their families back home, or cut links with the past completely. "We departed together with five boats; three made it to Lampedusa." He spent four years in northern Italy, dealing drugs and saving enough for a house and marriage back home.

Tunisia stuck in post-revolution limbo

The final nail in the coffin

Hundreds of Tunisians who have tried to take the dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean have perished. Unmarked graves have popped up along Tunisia's coastline.

nm/jm (AFP, dpa)

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