Polling stations closed in Tunisia on Sunday in a parliamentary election with no overwhelming favourite to emerge as the largest party tasked with forming a government.
Public annoyance at years of ineffective coalitions has fuelled a sense of disillusionment eight years after a revolution that introduced democracy and inspired the “Arab Spring”.
Early indications showed that voter turnout was low.
Polls closed at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT) but it was not clear from exit polls and parties’ own informal estimates of their vote share if any one party would be able claim victory on Sunday night.
Any new government will face the same obstacles that have bedevilled its predecessors – high unemployment, inflation and public debt, a powerful union that resists change and foreign lenders who demand it.
However, with established parties having performed poorly in the first round of a presidential election three weeks ago, it seems possible that no clear winner will emerge in parliament.
That could make building a governing coalition able to command a majority in parliament a vexatious and prolonged process, despite the urgent action that agencies such as the International Monetary Fund say are needed for the economy.
Turnout was about 15% by 2 p.m., prompting the electoral commission head to urge more voters to cast their ballots, local radio stations reported.
The failure of repeated coalition governments that grouped the old secular elite and the long-banned moderate Islamist Ennahda party to address a weak economy and declining public services has dismayed many Tunisians.
“After the revolution, we were all optimistic and our hopes were high. But hope has been greatly diminished now as a result of the disastrous performance of the rulers and the former parliament,” said Basma Zoghbi, a worker for Tunis municipality.
Unemployment, 15% nationally and 30% in some cities, is higher than it was under the former autocrat, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died last month in exile in Saudi Arabia.
While the president directly controls foreign and defence policy, the largest party in parliament nominates the prime minister, who forms a government that shapes most domestic policy.
At several polling stations visited by Reuters on Sunday, there seemed to be few younger voters.
One of them, Imad Salhi, 28, a waiter, was concerned about the direction of Tunisian politics. “I am very afraid that the country will fall into the hands of populists in the next stage,” he said.
Sunday’s vote for parliament is sandwiched between two rounds of a presidential election that advanced two political newcomers to the runoff at the expense of major-party candidates.
It is not clear what that may mean for Sunday’s election, in which Ennahda is one of several parties hoping to emerge with most votes, including the Heart of Tunisia party of media mogul Nabil Karoui.
Weeks before the presidential vote, Karoui was detained over tax evasion and money laundering charges made by a transparency watchdog three years ago, which he denies, and has spent the entire election period behind bars.
However, his success in the first round of the presidential election along with the independent Kais Saied, a retired law professor with conservative social views, has put pressure on the established parties.
Saied has suspended campaigning, saying he does not want to gain an unfair advantage over Karoui, who has not been able to meet voters or give any interviews so far from his cell.
If no party emerges as the clear winner on Sunday, it could complicate the process of building a coalition government.
Reflecting the uncertain atmosphere, Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia have sworn not to join governments the other is part of, a stance that bodes ill for the give-and-take vital to forming an administration.
“Tunisians should be proud for their democracy but the focus should be on economic and social conditions of Tunisians,” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi told Reuters after voting in Tunis.
If even the biggest party fails to win a large number of seats, with many independents standing, it may struggle to build a coalition reaching the 109 MPs needed to secure majority support for a new government.
It has two months from the election to do so before the president can ask another party to begin negotiations to form a government. If that fails, the election will be held again.