Tunisia's main Islamist party claimed Monday to have taken the biggest block of votes in historic free elections, as the cradle of the Arab Spring basked in praise for its democratic revolution.
Official results were not due until Tuesday, but provisional numbers released by media outlets appeared to confirm the Ennahda party's prediction that it would be the dominant force in Tunisia's constituent assembly.
The leader of the secular centre-left PDP party, tipped as Ennahda's main challenger before the vote, conceded defeat.
"The trend is clear. The PDP is badly placed. It is the decision of the Tunisian people. I bow before their choice," leader Maya Jribi told AFP at her party's headquarters.
Instead, the leaders of two other leftist parties, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (CPR), said they were fighting it out for second place, both expecting to get about 15 percent of the vote.
Tunisians turned out en masse Sunday to elect an assembly seen as the custodian of the pro-democracy revolution that toppled longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali nine months ago.
"We are not far from 40 percent. It could be a bit more or a bit less, but we are sure to take 24 (of the 27) voting districts," Samir Dilou, a member of Ennahda's political bureau told AFP, though another party member later put the figure at closer to 30 percent.
A provisional count showed Ennahda had won half of the 18 seats reserved for expatriate representatives on the assembly.
Data posted on the site of independent radio station Mosaique FM gave Ennahda the lead based on non-definitive results from a few dozen polling centres.
Sunday's election, for which over 90 percent of some 4.1 million registered voters turned out, won hearty acclaim from world leaders closely scrutinising developments on the soil of the Arab Spring's trailblazer.
"This landmark election constitutes a key step in the democratic transition of the country and a significant development in the overall democratic transformation in north Africa and the Middle East," said UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
US President Barack Obama hailed the vote as "an important step forward".
And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it set an example for world.
"As Tunisia's brave citizens chart a new democratic future, they continue to set an example for the region and the world," Clinton said in a statement.
Clinton did not comment directly on the Islamists' apparent triumph, but urged the new assembly "to operate in a transparent and inclusive manner".
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The 27-member European Union vowed support for the new authorities, while former colonial power France hailed Tunisian voters' "democratic fervour".
Ennahda sought to reassure investors that there would be stability and said it was open to a coalition with any party "without exception".
"We would like to reassure our trade and economic partners, and all actors and investors, we hope very soon to have stability and the right conditions for investment in Tunisia," executive party member Abdelhamid Jlassi told journalists in Tunis.
His colleague Nourreddine Bhiri told AFP: "We respect the rights of women ... and equality between Tunisians whatever their religion, their sex or their social status."
The new 217-member assembly will be tasked with rewriting the constitution and appointing a president to form a caretaker government.
It 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.
It will also have interim authority to write laws and pass budgets.
Ennahda says it models itself on the ruling AKP party in Turkey, another Muslim-majority country which like Tunisia to date has a secular state.
Ennahda's critics have accused the party of preaching modernism in public and radicalism in the mosques, but Tunisia's progressive left remains divided with party leaders having failed to form a pre-vote alliance.
This was Tunisia's first electoral contest without a pre-determined outcome, and the first run by an independent electoral body after decades of ballot-stuffing by the interior ministry.
Ben Ali was ousted in January after 23 years of iron-fisted rule in a popular uprising that sparked region-wide revolts which claimed their latest Arab strongman last Thursday with the killing of Moamer Kadhafi of Libya.
"The people have voted, democracy has triumphed," the daily La Presse said in bold, red letters -- the colour of the Tunisian flag -- on its front page Monday.
"October 23, 2011, will be remembered in history as a very special day not only for Tunisia but for the entire Arab world.
"For the first time in this vast autocratic region ... a popular consultation was held that respected the rules and criteria followed in countries with a long tradition of democracy."
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.
The current interim government will remain in power until the assembly appoints a new president, not expected before November 9.