TUNIS, Tunisia — The main Islamist party contesting Tunisia's landmark elections appeared to have made a strong showing, with the first official results Monday indicating it had won half the seats reserved for Tunisians living abroad.
The success by the moderate Ennahda party for the overseas seats is expected to be replicated domestically as votes continue to be counted from Tunisia's Sunday election. Tunisians voted for a body to write a new constitution after they ousted their longtime dictator in January — a revolution that sparked similar movements in Egypt, Libya and other countries.
An Ennahda victory in a comparatively secular society such as Tunisia could have wide implications for other religious parties in the Arab world. But although Ennahda says it wants sharia, or Islamic law, to be the source of Tunisia's legislation, it insists it will respect women's rights and is committed to democracy and working with other parties.
There are 18 seats in the new 217-member assembly reserved for those living outside the country. Ennahda took nine of the seats. Four went to the Ettakatol or "forum" party and three to the Congress for the Republic — both ideologically center left.
Tunisian authorities shed no light on the ongoing counting for the domestic votes in the first free election in the nation's history. Radio Mosaique FM, however, posted results from individual polling stations around the country, with many showing a commanding lead for Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party.
"Ennahda has taken first place on the national level and at the level of the constituencies," said Abdel-Hamid Jelassi, the party's campaign manager at a triumphant press conference outside their headquarters amid cheering supporters.
He estimated the party may have taken at least 30 percent of the seats of the new assembly. Election commission head Kamel Jendoubi said official results would be released Tuesday afternoon.
European observers on Monday pronounced the election one of the freest they had ever seen and urged all the parties to accept the results. Long snaking lines of voters on Sunday testified to Tunisians' eagerness to embrace an open ballot after decades of dictatorship.
"There is no way of arguing the legitimacy of the outcome, absolutely not, even if there is disappointment," said Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, the head of the observer delegation from the Council of Europe.
Tunisia was known for decades for its repressive leadership but also for its progressive legislation on women and families, which secular-leaning Tunisians fear Ennahda will roll back if it takes a commanding number of seats in the new assembly.
Ennahda believes that Islamic law should be the source of the country's legislation, but it also says the country's progressive personal status code is compatible with its ideology and that it respects all religions and creeds.
"Our attitude and approach is firmly rooted in the Arab and Islamic heritage of our identity but at the same time in the political values of the West," said Sayed Ferjani, a member of the party's political bureau.
Tunisia's elections coincided with declarations in neighboring Libya by its new leaders that the country has been liberated from the yoke of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Libya's new leaders also announced plans with a sharply Islamist tone that could rattle their Western backers.
Turnout in Tunisia was massive on a day electric with the excitement, with long lines at polling stations. More than 90 percent of the country's 4.1 million registered voters, out of a 7.5 million strong electorate, participated, said Boubker Bethabet, Secretary General of the election commission.
The constituent assembly is exepected to shape Tunisia's fledgling democracy, choose a new government and write a new constitution that would pave the way for future elections.
In a surprise second place in many constituencies was the CPR of longtime human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, according to party and electoral officials. Marzouki is known less for his political beliefs than for his high-profile criticism of the old regime's repression.
Of all the secular parties arrayed against Ennahda in the election, Marzouki's has been the most open to joining a coalition with the Islamist party.
Also a surprise has been the apparent poor showing of the Progressive Democratic Party, the strongest legal opposition group under the old regime, a center-left party that has billed itself as the main opponent of Ennahda and a defender of secular values.
Preliminary results show the party even polling a distant fourth in many districts.
Ennahda had been widely expected to perform well, though the key question is whether it would get a majority. Regardless of the result, the party has said it would join a coalition with other parties to ensure a broad-based government.
More than 14,000 local and international observers watched polling stations, including delegations from the European Union and the Carter Center.
Voters included women with headscarves and without, former political prisoners and young people whose Facebook posts helped fuel the revolution.
After 23 years in power, Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown Jan. 14 by a monthlong uprising, sparked by a fruit vendor who set himself on fire to protest police harassment. The uprising was fueled by anger over unemployment, corruption and repression and quickly inspired similar rebellions across the Arab world.
The autocratic rulers of Egypt and Libya have fallen since, but Tunisia is the first country to hold free elections as a result of the upheaval. Egypt's parliamentary election is set for next month.