TUNIS: Campaigning officially got underway Saturday for Tunisian parliamentary elections seen as a milestone in efforts to establish a democratic foothold in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
Hailed as a rare success story following the uprisings that swept much of the region in 2011, the North African nation hopes the vote will be a highlight of a sometimes troubled transition.
Tunisia has grappled with social unrest over the feeble economy, violence blamed on Islamists, and attacks by militant groups including Al-Qaeda loyalists.
The Oct. 26 parliamentary polls will be the second since the revolution four years ago that swept away longtime dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Stalwarts of the deposed regime as well as members of the once-outlawed Ennahda moderate Islamist party are among those standing for office.
In 2011, Ennahda won the largest share of seats in the National Assembly, which was due to be replaced by a permanent parliament the following year.
But the process was delayed by political crises which culminated with the assassination last year of two opposition lawmakers by suspected Islamist militants.
Under an agreement finally reached to break the deadlock, parliament ratified a new constitution in January and Ennahda handed power to an interim government of independents.
About 5.2 million people are eligible to vote with 13,000 candidates vying for a seat in the 217-strong National Assembly.
The polls will be followed by an election in November giving Tunisians the opportunity to directly elect their president for the first time in the post-Ben Ali era.
The parliamentary race got off to a slow start because of the Eid al-Adha festival, but the candidates have pledged to focus on crippling poverty and unemployment.
Social discontent in Tunisia often leads to violence, especially in the impoverished center of the country, where a street vendor set himself on fire nearly four years ago in a desperate act of protest that launched the first Arab Spring uprising.
Last month the World Bank called for sweeping reforms in Tunisia, warning that bureaucracy, a lack of competition and a banking system in ruins had ossified the economy.
Official figures show that 31.4 of university graduates are unemployed.
Ennahda, which clinched 37 percent of the vote three years ago, is aiming to do even better this time.
"We have confidence in our people, who gave us a high percentage last time," its leader Rached Ghannouchi said last month.
The party will not field a presidential candidate, but will back a "consensus" hopeful in the November 23 polls to help "pull Tunisia out of catastrophe and impasse," said Ghannouchi.
The upcoming vote is seen as a landmark in the West, where many countries and institutions consider Tunisia as the last hope for democracy to take root in an Arab Spring nation.
"It is extremely important... for the Tunisians themselves but also for the European Union and the entire region," said European parliament member Annemie Neyts-Uytterbroeck, who will head the EU's observer mission during the polls.
Allegations of vote-buying have fanned political tensions.
"I visited a village in the region of Monastir where people have told me they had been offered 50 dinars (23 euros, $29) for the vote," said leftist politician Hamma Hammami.
Election officials said they were investigating an allegation concerning voter sponsorship lists submitted by some presidential candidates.