TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians voted Sunday for their first five-year parliament since they overthrew their dictator in the 2011 revolution that kicked off the Arab Spring, with the main secular party declaring an early victory over the once-dominant Islamists.
Although official results would not be ready before Wednesday, Nida Tunis (Tunisia's Call) claimed that pollsters and its own research showed it came in first place. But the powerful Islamist Ennahda Party cautioned against jumping to conclusions and expressed optimism for its own future.
The official election commission put the participation rate at a robust 60 percent of the 5.2 million registered voters.
Tunisia is widely seen as the country that has the best chance for democracy in the Arab world, but the past three and a half years have been marked by political turmoil, terrorist attacks and a faltering economy which has brought disillusionment to many over the democratic process.
Beji Caid Essebsi, the 87-year-old leader of Nida Tunis, said soon after polls closed that "there are positive signs we may be first" with a large margin of seats.
His prediction was backed up by exit polls conducted by the private Tunisia-based Sigma Conseil institute, which gave his party 37 percent of the 217-seat body, with just 26 percent to Ennahda.
The Islamist party, which took nearly half the seats in the 2011 election and ran the country for two years, said it would not engage in "speculation and premature announcements."
"Based on our observations, we are optimistic," said Yusra Ghannouchi, a party spokeswoman, who described the Nida Tunis announcement as "irresponsible."
Soon after the announcement from Nida Tunis, supporters of the party, which made opposition to the Ennahda its main platform, gathered at the party headquarters to celebrate.
Scott Mastic, the director of Middle East programs for the International Republican Institute, which observed the elections, warned that the early announcement could hurt the country's fledgling democratic process.
"The game has shifted to get out declarations of victory before there are official results and in a transitional process like this, I don't know if it's good for democracy," he said, noting that otherwise the election unfolded well across this country of 11 million.
In the United States, President Barack Obama called Tunisia's election an important milestone in the country's historic political transition.
"In casting their ballots today, Tunisians continued to inspire people across their region and around the world," Obama said in a statement.
Voting began in early in the mornings with long lines despite sudden showers in the capital and was widely described as well organized and orderly.
"We are proud to vote. It's our duty as citizens and I am optimistic," said Zeinab Turabi, a lawyer in the affluent Tunis neighborhood of Soukra. "If you don't vote, you'll get Libya," she added, referring to the neighboring country which has been taken hostage by violent militias since the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Some Tunisians were less optimistic. Observers said turnout in the slum of Douar Hicher, where residents frequently clash with police and the smell of open garbage piles and untreated sewage wafts along the unpaved streets near polling stations, was light and less than in 2011.
"It didn't get better after 2011 but we still voted in 2014 hoping that it will. But if it doesn't, then no one will vote again," said Ali Mbeet, a worker in a pizza restaurant who complained about the rising prices and lack of jobs.
Even in downtown Tunis, many young men slouching in cafes weren't sporting the telltale inky finger of a voter.
Despite a bewildering array of candidates, the contest seemed to boil down to those who still believed the Islamists could deliver a prosperous future for Tunisia, and those who want Nida Tunis to defeat them.
"I am here to vote for democracy and for those who can confront Ennahda, for a modern Tunisia and to keep them from ruling alone," said Lahimer Salem, a businessman. "They (the Islamists) are part of the country, but they are not the only ones."
The party that gains the most seats in the 217-seat parliament has the right to form a government, which will most likely involve a coalition of several parties. Presidential elections are in November.
There were no reports of violence on Sunday, despite fears that terrorists might disrupt the elections. On Friday, police stormed a house in the Tunis suburb of Oued Ellil after a 24-hour standoff, killing five women and a man who they described as "terrorists." The government said more than 80,000 police and soldiers were mobilized to protect the elections.
Independent monitoring groups had reported a number of irregularities during the day, citing cases of voting stations opening late because materials hadn't arrived. They said that in several places across the country, party activists encouraged people to vote for their party inside polling stations or paid for votes.
U.S. ambassador Jacob Walles visited several polling stations in the morning and was heckled at one by a few people who insisted he leave.