Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party vowed Wednesday to form a new government within a month as preliminary results gave it a commanding lead, but not a majority, in the Arab Spring's first election.
As coalition negotiations got under way in earnest, the biggest secular party defended its negotiations with Ennahda, saying the Islamist party was neither the devil nor the Taliban.
"No, no, no it is not the devil and we do not make pacts with the devil," Congress for the Republic (CPR) leader Moncef Marzouki told reporters in Tunis.
"One must not take them for the Taliban of Tunisia. It is a moderate part of Islam."
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said a preliminary vote tally that put it in the clear lead with 53 seats of the polling districts counted so far, made the party the "natural" choice to lead the new executive.
The CPR was the second-placed party with 18 seats so far on a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution, appoint a caretaker government and prepare for fresh elections.
As the ISIE election body said it expected to announce the final results on Thursday, the country appeared headed for complicated coalition negotiations, with all of Ennahda's possible partners on the leftist, liberal side of the political spectrum.
But Ghannouchi said a government would be put together as soon as possible, "within no more than a month."
And an executive party member told AFP Ennahda has put forward its number two, Hamadi Jebali, as the next head of government.
The 62-year-old, an engineer by training and a former journalist, is a co-founder of Ennahda. A vehement opponent of Ben Ali, he spent 16 years in jail, 10 in isolation, for his political activities.
Ghannouchi has always said he had no government ambitions, and was not an election candidate.
Marzouki said the protection of civil liberties and gender equality were non-negotiables, adding: "We are capable of negotiating with them (Ennahda), to ensure that these ideals are maintained in Tunisia without an ideological civil war, without a battle between the modernist pole and the Islamist pole."
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
The interim results gave the third place to the Petition for Justice and Development -- a grouping backed by Hachmi Haamdi, a rich London-based businessman said to have close ties to Ben Ali.
Other parties and a Paris-based satellite body of the ISIE have accused Haamdi of electoral irregularities, including using his satellite television station to broadcast his electoral message in contravention of the electoral code.
The preliminary fourth place has gone to the leftist Ettakatol, whose leader Mustapha Ben Jafaar Tuesday proclaimed himself willing to "assume the highest responsibility" in a new government.
Ben Jafaar told AFP that coalition discussions with Ennahda had started for the new assembly, which will also have interim powers to write laws and pass budgets.
A broad-based executive was required, he added, to avoid "polarisation between Islamists and modernists".
Ghannouchi said Ennahda was in favour of a "big, national alliance that will lead to a democratic government."
Asked about the identity of the interim president, he said: "It will be a person who had militated against the dictatorship. Nothing has been decided yet. Discussions are continuing," without saying with whom.
The new assembly will decide on the country's system of government and how to guarantee basic liberties, including women's rights, which many in Tunisia fear Ennahda would seek to diminish despite its assurances to the contrary.
Analysts say that Ennahda, even in a majority alliance, would be unable to "dictate" its programme to the assembly, having no choice but to appease its alliance partners, a moderate-minded society, and the international community on whose investment and tourism the country relies heavily.
Leftist parties may yet seek to form a majority bloc against Ennahda.
Even before the official results are known, Ennahda has sought to reassure investors of stability and women that it will respect their equality, and said it was open to a coalition with any party "without exception".
The electoral system was designed to include as many parties as possible in drafting the new constitution, expected to take a year, ahead of fresh national polls.