Islamists on Monday claimed victory in Tunisia's first democratic election, sending a message to other states in the region that long-sidelined Islamists are challenging for power after the "Arab Spring."
Official results from Sunday's vote have not been announced, but the Ennahda party said its workers had tallied the figures from results posted at polling stations around the country.
"The first confirmed results show that Ennahda has obtained first place," campaign manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi said outside party headquarters in the center of the Tunisian capital.
As he spoke, a crowd of people in the street shouted "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is great!" Other people started singing the Tunisian national anthem.
Mindful that some people in Tunisia and elsewhere see Islamists as a threat to modern, liberal values, the party official stressed Ennahda would wield its power in a responsible and inclusive way.
"We will spare no effort to create a stable political alliance in the constituent assembly. We reassure the investors and international economic partners," Jlazzi said.
Even if its victory is confirmed when official results from the vote — the first democratic election in Tunisia's history — are released, Ennahda will still have to share power with other, secularist parties.
Sunday's vote was for an assembly which will sit for one year to draft a new constitution. It will also appoint a new interim president and government to run the country until fresh elections late next year or early in 2013.
Tunisia became the birth-place of the "Arab Spring" when Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in a provincial town, set fire to himself in protest at poverty and government repression.
His action provoked a wave of protests which, weeks later, forced autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.
The revolution in Tunisia, a former French colony, inspired uprisings which forced out entrenched leaders in Egypt and Libya, and convulsed Yemen and Syria — re-shaping the political landscape of the Middle East.
Ennahda is led by Rachid Ghannouchi, a scholar who was forced into exile in Britain for 22 years because of harassment by Ben Ali's police.
He is at pains to stress his party will not enforce any code of morality on Tunisian society. He models his approach on the moderate Islamist of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
But the party's resurgence is met with ambivalence by some people in Tunisia. The country's strong secularist traditions go back to first post-independence President Habiba Bourguiba who called the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, an "odious rag."
A crowd of about 50 people gathered late on Monday outside the offices of the electoral commission, demanding an investigation into what it said were irregularities committed by Ennahda.
A leading secularist challenger to Ennahda, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) conceded defeat. It had warned voters that modern, liberal values would be threatened if the Islamists won.
"The PDP respects the democratic game. The people gave their trust to those it considers worthy of that trust. We congratulate the winner and we will be in the ranks of the opposition," a party statement sent to Reuters said.
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