TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisians voted Sunday in their first local elections since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, a crucial step toward consolidating the country's exceptional democracy.
Turnout appeared low, with just 13 percent taking part by midday, according to electoral authorities — a marked contrast from the long lines of voters at post-revolution presidential and parliamentary elections.
Voter apathy is widespread, despite anger at the country's 15 percent unemployment and 7 percent inflation. It's an especially big problem for Tunisia's youth, who drove the 2011 uprising but haven't seen their opportunities improve in the years since.
President Beji Caid Essebsi, casting his ballot in the Tunis suburb of Soukra, insisted that Tunisia has taken the right path. "Democracy is not imposed but is exercised, and we are in the process of enshrining that every day," he said.
The leader of influential Islamist party Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi, sounded a similar theme. "We want to send a message to the world that illustrates that democracy is in effect in Tunisia, this country that revived itself after chasing out a dictator," he said.
The North African nation's 5.3 million voters will have more than 2,000 candidate lists to choose from in Sunday's vote for city and town councils across the country. The councils are being given greater powers in an effort to decentralize decision-making and boost long-marginalized inland regions.
The elections are breaking new ground on multiple levels.
Women make up 49 percent of the candidates, in part thanks to legal measures passed in recent years to encourage equality. One of the leading candidates is pharmacist Souad Abderrahim, running to become the first female mayor of the capital Tunis.
And in the Mediterranean resort town of Monastir, Jewish sewing machine repairman Simon Slama is running with the Islamist party Ennahdha.
Meanwhile, nearly half of the candidates are independents and many are totally new to politics.
"These elections are a historic step ... they will bring participatory democracy to a local level, where daily problems are managed and where citizens can really make their voices heard," said the head of the European Union's observer mission, Fabio Massimo Castaldo.
Ennahdha, considered the best organized, is running lists in every constituency and expected to come out with the most winners. It's followed by the secular Nida Tounes party of President Essebsi, which runs the central government in a coalition with Ennahdha.
But observers say the independent candidates could also perform well, riding on disillusionment that the leading parties haven't fulfilled the promises of the 2011 revolution, when Tunisian protesters overthrew their longtime strongman and unleashed uprisings around the Arab world.
Preliminary results are expected Monday. The outcome is expected to give an idea of political tendencies ahead of presidential and legislative elections next year.
With Tunisia still reeling from Islamic extremist attacks on tourist sites and the presidential guard in 2015, the government has ordered 60,000 security forces out to protect the nation's 11,000 voting stations on Sunday.
The president issued a last-minute appeal to Tunisians to take advantage of their freedom to vote — exceptional in a region marked by authoritarian leaders or Libya's violent, lawless chaos.