TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's moderate Islamist party appeared to be heading for victory in parliamentary elections, according to polling agencies, though the rival party of a jailed populist tycoon also claimed to come out on top of Sunday's voting.
The election is seen as important for the country's economic and social stability — and as a bellwether for the upcoming presidential runoff between detained magnate Nabil Karoui and an independent law professor supported by the Islamists.
Two polling agencies, Emhrod Consulting and Sigma Conseil, estimated that Islamist party Ennahdha would win the most votes, and about 40 out of the 217 seats in the Assembly of People's Representatives. The polls projected that Karoui's Qalb Tounes party would come in second with 33 to 35 seats.
Each party held a news conference and said that they had won, according to their own estimations. Official results weren't expected before Monday.
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 new democratic system from scratch, but is struggling with high unemployment and attacks by extremists.
Turnout was just 41%, according to the election commission, and no party is expected to get a majority, meaning the winner will seek to create a coalition. Voters chose among nearly 16,000 candidates from more than 200 parties.
Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi, whose party had the most seats in the outgoing parliament, said the election represented "a sign of maturity of Tunisian democracy."
His party campaigned against corruption and against Karoui, whose party focused on promises to fight poverty. The businessman is accused of tax evasion and money laundering, but denies wrongdoing and says he's being politically targeted.
For many Tunisians, the chance to vote in free elections is still special.
"I brought my son with me to show that elections are a right that he must have and must understand, how to choose the people who can help in his future," voter Basma Arous said.
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.
According to the Tunisian Constitution, the victorious party designates the prime minister.
The parliamentary election is sandwiched between rounds of a bizarre presidential race that will see Karoui face independent law professor Kais Saied in a runoff on Oct. 13.
The legislative election has aroused little public interest, which is more focused on the presidential race. The electoral commission 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," analyst and former government minister Hakim Ben Hammouda said.
Angela Charlton in Paris, and Mehdi El Arem in Tunis, contributed to this report.