TUNIS, Oct 21, 2014 (AFP) - Tunisians vote Sunday to elect their first parliament since the country's 2011 revolution, in a rare glimmer of hope for a region torn apart by post-Arab Spring violence and repression.
After three weeks of largely low-key campaigning, more than five million voters are to elect 217 deputies in a ballot pitting the Islamist Ennahda movement -- the country's largest party -- against a host of secular groups.
Tunisia has enjoyed relative stability since the region's 2011 uprisings in contrast to the lawlessness of Libya and Yemen, the military takeover in Egypt and Syria's bloody civil war.
But the country has flirted with disaster, particularly last year when a rise in militant activity, the assassination of two opposition lawmakers and an economy in the doldrums threatened to drag Tunisia down the same path.
Its political class, although often at loggerheads, caved in to pressure from civil society groups in January to schedule Sunday's vote and set presidential elections for November 23.
Tunisia's model of coalition government -- in which Ennahda shares power with two secular parties -- was praised by the international community.
That arrangement collapsed and was replaced in January by a government of independents tasked with holding fresh elections.
"You just need to compare (Tunisia) with other Arab Spring countries... from the point of view of the protection of freedom and democracy, we are considered a successful model," said Ennahda's former prime minister, Ali Larayedh.
- 'Sham democracy?' -
Ennahda has positioned itself as the party of "consensus" and, in the words of its leader Rached Ghannouchi, the only group capable of "establishing a democratic state".
But its critics, led by the secular Nidaa Tounes party, paint a grim picture of the Islamists' record on security and economic reform.
"We cannot hide the fact that the two governments led by Ennahda have contributed to the creation of social crises... and terrorism has grown," party chief Beji Caid Essebsi told Le Temps newspaper.
Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran who served in the former regime of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has accused the Islamists of having ulterior motives.
Main rivals Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes will fight it out with a number of parties run by former Ben Ali stalwarts, as well as other Islamist, secular and leftist organisations.
Ghannouchi has predicted Ennahda would improve on the 37 percent of the vote it won three years ago in an election to a constituent assembly which drew up a post-Ben Ali constitution.
Interim president Moncef Marzouki, who belongs to centre-left Ennahda ally the Congress for the Republic, in a televised interview this weekend called the parliamentary and presidential elections a "defining moment" for the country.
Although Tunisia has avoided the kind of turmoil now gripping several Arab states, analysts say it is too early to call its transition to democracy an outright success.
"It depends what we mean by success," said Michael Ayari, senior Tunisia analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.
"Is success a little sham democracy? Is Tunisia advancing towards rule of law? If it can and at the same time develop its growth and broaden its middle classes without resorting to authoritarianism, that would be a success."
- 'Up against a wall' -
In spite of the international attention Sunday's election will garner, many ordinary Tunisians say they will not be voting.
Kamal Torkhani, 41, was an enthusiastic participant in the 2011 revolution. But faced with what he sees as a choice between Ben Ali's lackeys and a self-serving ruling class, he plans to boycott Sunday's vote.
"When we have honest politicians who are concerned with people's problems, I will vote," he said. "We are still living under pressure. We have no dignity or justice."
Bechir Bejaoui voted in the October 2011 election that established Tunisia's Constituent Assembly but will stay away from polling stations this time around.
"(In October 2011) I was content to stand in line for three hours," said Bejaoui, who like Mohamed Bouazizi -- the man whose self-immolation sparked Tunisia's uprising -- ekes out a living as a street vendor.
"But these politicians aren't worth a minute of my time. They are incompetent and have impoverished the people."
Among Tunisia's youth, there is a clear lack of enthusiasm despite deep concern over the country's future.
"I'm not very politically aware but I do know that the country is up against a wall," said Amal Halbaouti, an unemployed 23-year-old.
"We don't want the country to go back to the days of Ben Ali but we need something better."