By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's main Islamist party began campaigning on Monday preparing to face off with secular opponents and former regime officials in the second free elections since the North African state's 2011 uprising.
Three years after protests ousted autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has advanced toward full democracy and is seen as a model for the region. It holds parliamentary elections on Oct. 26 and a presidential ballot in November.
Successful elections will be an important test for Tunisia after it passed a new constitution and overcame a crisis between Islamist political forces and secular opponents that almost overturned its fragile democracy.
For the first time since the 2011 "Jasmine revolution" against Ben Ali, former officials from his regime will be running for office again by representing various secular parties participating in the electoral race.
Unlike in Egypt and Libya, who have struggled with bitter divisions over the role of former regime officials since their own 2011 revolutions, Tunisia's political party leaders have come to a compromise.
Tunisia's main Islamist party, Ennahda, won the first free election after the overthrow of Ben Ali and governed in a coalition before a crisis erupted over the assassination of two opposition leaders by militant gunmen.
Critics blamed Ennahda for being lax with Islamist militants, of mismanaging the economy and trying to hold onto power. Still, the Islamist party remains a main contender alongside secular rivals Nida Tounes.
"Despite Ennadha's ??mistakes, they are still the main force in this election with Nida Tounes. The supporters of the former regime also maintain extensive influence, which could allow significant results," political analyst Noureddine Mbarki said.
Nida Tounes, led by a former Ben Ali parliament speaker, had spearheaded the opposition coalition to the Islamist-led government during the crisis last year, and has since become the motor of secular opposition movement in Tunisia.
Ennahda, who leadership includes men who spent years in exile or jailed under Ben Ali, is optimistic it can repeat its last win in the parliament.
"We have confidence in our people, who gave us a high percentage last time," Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said.
The start to campaigning was subdued because it coincided with the end of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.
Ennahda began its campaigning on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis, a symbolical focal point in the protests that toppled Ben Ali in January 2011.
NO PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
Ennahda has said it would not contest a presidential election in November, in the interest of ensuring an inclusive government for all Tunisians and because it had already headed the last administration.
Nida Tounes has pledged to revive the economy of the small nation heavily dependent on foreign tourism and remittances for its hard currency. But it has not excluded the possibility of forming of a coalition with Islamists.
Since the 2011 revolt, Tunisia's economy has struggled to revive job growth. The government is also caught up in a low-intensity campaign against hardline Islamist militants attacking security forces.
"We work for a more stable country, for more security, more liberty and a country that is more credible within and to the outside world," said Beji Caid Essebsi, Nida Tounes leader.
Despite more political stability, economic opportunities, jobs and the high cost of living remain high on the list of priorities for most Tunisians.
Their country is still struggling to reduce unemployment, which rose from 12 percent in 2010 to 15 percent now, and to attract more investment to boost economic growth, expected to slow to 2.3 percent in 2014 down from 5 percent in 2010.
"Revolution gave us freedom and democracy, but democracy does not give us bread," said Lassaed Jouini, a young unemployed media technician. "Whoever wants to win with success should revive the economy and reduce unemployment."
(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Patrick Markey and Tom Heneghan)