By Neil Hartnell
NASSAU (Reuters) - Opposition leader Perry Christie claimed a convincing general election victory in the Bahamas after prime minister Hubert Ingraham conceded defeat late on Monday night.
Prime Minister-elect Christie hailed the Progressive Liberal Party's "magnificent victory", but warned supporters that "great challenges" lay ahead for the 700-island archipelago to revive a struggling economy and combat escalating crime.
Although final results have not been officially announced, it was clear that the Progressive Liberal Party had secured a commanding majority of the 38 seats in the House of Assembly, which will allow it to form a new government.
Christie, 69, is expected to be sworn in as prime minister on Tuesday, returning to the job he had held from 2002 to 2007.
Appealing for national unity, Christie said: "This has been a bitterly contested election, and now it is over it is time for national healing to begin."
Addressing party workers at the headquarters of the ousted ruling Free National Movement, Ingraham said he would stand down as party leader and would not take up his place in the new parliament despite being re-elected to the North Abaco seat for the eighth time.
"The Progressive Liberal Party has won the election," said Ingraham, who served as prime minister from 1992 to 2002 and again from 2007. "I do not propose to lead the party in opposition."
Analysts had predicted a close race between the two leading parties in the sparsely populated island chain that is heavily dependent on tourism and earnings from its role as an offshore financial center.
The Progressive Liberal Party faces tough challenges, including tepid economic growth and an official unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent.
The party was ousted amid several scandals five years ago, including claims that immigration officials had expedited a residency permit for late Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith.
Home to about 350,000 people, the scattered archipelago stretching from just off eastern Florida to near Cuba is one of the most prosperous countries in the Atlantic-Caribbean region.
But it is also saddled with a heavy debt burden and a burgeoning crime and murder rate.
In addition to crime, the lackluster economy and oil issues largely dominated the run-up to Monday's vote.
The major parties traded jabs over oil exploration, which is highly sensitive given revenues from tourism and the allure of white sand beaches and azure waters to the island chain's many frequent vacationers.
Analysts say there could be 1 billion barrels of oil reserves in Bahamian waters, offering an opportunity for economic growth. But extensive drilling for oil could come at a cost to tourism.
Ingraham initially vowed he would not approve any drilling for oil if re-elected, but later said he would authorize it once the appropriate regulatory procedures were put in place.
He also sought to cast Christie's party as being closely tied to the Bahamas Petroleum Company, which holds five licenses to explore for oil in the Bahamas. Christie and the Progressive Liberal Party denied any links to the oil company.
(Writing by Tom Brown and Kevin Gray; editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)