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Sunday December 15th, 2019 9:46PM

Islamists hope to stay on top as Tunisians choose parliament

By The Associated Press
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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians were electing a new parliament Sunday amid a tumultuous political season, with a moderate Islamist party and a jailed tycoon's populist movement vying to come out on top of a crowded field.

Security was tight for the vote, with around 100,000 police officers and soldiers patrolling 4,500 polling stations, notably along the sensitive borders with Algeria and Libya.

Economic concerns are paramount to voters in this North African nation on the Mediterranean Sea, which kicked off the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and built a democracy, but is struggling with high unemployment and attacks by extremists.

Voters are choosing among nearly 16,000 candidates from more than 200 parties to fill the 217 seats on the Assembly of People's Representatives. Preliminary results are expected by Thursday.

It will be tough for a single party to win a majority for the five-year term, although the Islamist party Ennahdha and the Qalb Tounes party of jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui are expected to do well.

The parliamentary election is sandwiched between rounds of a bizarre presidential race that will see Karoui face independent law professor Kais Saied in a presidential runoff on Oct. 13.

The Islamist party Ennahdha, the biggest party in the outgoing legislature, is hoping to hold on to its lead by campaigning against corruption and against Karoui. The businessman is accused of tax evasion and money laundering, but denies wrongdoing and says he's being politically targeted.

The legislative election has aroused little public interest, which is more focused on the presidential race. Electoral commission chief Nabil Baffoun said turnout at 2:30 p.m. was just 15%. The commission also reported scattered voting infractions, though in general international observers have praised Tunisia's voting practices as free and fair.

Despite low public interest and the confusingly huge number of parties and candidates, political analysts say Sunday's vote will have lasting impact.

"These elections are of paramount importance, because it is the winners who will decide the future of our country and our major political, economic and social choices," said analyst and former government minister Hakim Ben Hammouda.

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