Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, casts his ballot in the first free municipal elections since the 2011 revolution (AFP)
Tunisia's first free municipal elections got underway on Sunday as voters expressed frustration at the slow pace of change since the 2011 revolution in the cradle of the Arab Spring.
The elections have been touted as another milestone on the road to democracy in the North African country, which has been praised for its transition from decades of dictatorship.
But Tunisia has struggled with persistent political, security and economic problems as well as corruption since the revolution, and observers expected a low turnout for Sunday's poll.
Around 15 people trickled into a polling station in central Tunis to cast their ballots after voting officially began at 8:00 am (0700 GMT).
Ridha Kouki, 58, acknowledged that voting is "a right and a duty" but said Tunisians "have little hope" of any change.
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Chokri Halaoui, 45, said he wanted to send a "message to politicians to tell them 'we have voted now show us what you can do'".
The Ennahda and secular Nidaa Tounis parties, which form a coalition at the national level, are expected to dominate the polls for 350 municipalities.
Tunisians have already voted in parliamentary and presidential elections since the 2011 fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but municipal polls had been delayed four times due to logistic, administrative and political deadlocks.
President Beji Caid Essebsi has called for a "massive turnout".
"For the first time [since the revolution] the Tunisian people are called to participate in municipal elections, something that seems simple but it is very important," he said on Friday.
'Cart without wheels'
Tunisia is grappling with economic challenges including an inflation rate which stands at around eight percent and an unemployment rate of more than 15 percent.
The country was hit by a wave of protest at the start of the year over a new austerity budget introduced by the government.
"These municipal elections won't change anything for us. We will always be on the same cart without wheels or a horse," 34-year-old housewife Hilma said ahead of the vote.
"I intended to boycott [the vote], but I changed my mind at the last moment," Mohamed Ali Abadi said after leaving a polling station. "We are facing a lot of economic problems but will continue our way in a real democracy."
The turnout in three polling stations visited by Reuters news agency in the capital Tunis in the morning was weak, with mostly elderly people voting while young people were sitting in cafes nearby.
"I want a job," said a young man who gave his name as Ramzi. "No one cared for us in the past years and we suffer from unemployment."
More than 57,000 candidates, half of them women and young people, are running for office in Tunisia's 350 municipalities.
Around 60,000 police and military personnel have been mobilised for the polls, while Tunisia remains under a state of emergency, imposed in 2015 after a string of deadly attacks by militants.
A new generation
Across the country, voting will run until 6pm (17:00 GMT) in more than 11,000 polling stations.
But in Kasserine in central Tunisia, a hotbed of protests during the revolt that toppled Ben Ali, polling stations will open later and close earlier for "security reasons," organisers said.
The municipal elections, enshrined in the new constitution and one of the demands of the revolution, mark the first tangible step of decentralisation since the end of Ben Ali's rule.
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Voters will elect municipal counsellors who in turn will elect mayors by mid-June.
While experts predict the Ennahda movement and the Nidaa Tounes party will come out on top in nearly every district, there remain some hopes that the polls, the first in four years, will see a new generation elected into office.
The main challenge will be to match voters' expectations with local budgets in a country where the central government makes the main decisions about how and where money gets spent.
A new law envisages some decision-making being gradually devolved to the local level, though it remains unclear how it will work in practice.
The municipal polls will be followed by legislative and presidential votes in 2019.