TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's main secular opposition party was claiming victory on Monday over once-dominant Islamists in the country's historic parliamentary elections.
Partial results from the official election commission were expected to be released throughout the day Monday, but the Nida Tunis (Tunis Calls) party cited exit polls to say it has won more seats than any other party in the 217-member parliament.
The election, in which 60 percent of Tunisia's 5.2 million registered voters participated, will produce the nation's first five-year parliament following the country's 2011 Arab Spring revolt and has already been widely praised around the world.
"This milestone in Tunisia's transition to democracy exemplifies why Tunisia remains a beacon of hope, not only to the Tunisian people, but to the region and the world," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following up President Barack Obama's praise from the day before.
The peaceful and orderly manner in which the elections unfolded on Sunday was also lauded by the European Union, the United Nations and France.
Tunisia has been a rare bright spot across the Middle East and North Africa where the hopes brought by the pro-democracy uprisings of 2011 were dashed with Libya under control of battling militias, Egypt's elected government ousted by a military coup and Syria dissolving into civil war.
Only Tunisia, despite many ups and downs, looks like it might produce a functioning democracy.
If the exit polls which give Nida Tunis 37 percent of the seats and 26 percent to the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party are confirmed by the vote count, it would be a dramatic reversal for the Islamists, which had ruled the country for two stormy years in a coalition with two other liberal parties.
Ennahda acknowledged that Nida Tunis "probably" won more seats than any other party.
"We have a picture forming and we are not as optimistic as last night," said Yusra Ghannouchi, a spokeswoman for the party.
A sample of polling station results by the independent Mourakiboun observer group gave similar results as the exit polls, with Nida Tunis at least nine points ahead of Ennahda.
Created as an explicit counterbalance to the Islamists after their 2011 election victory, Nida Tunis includes businessmen, trade unionists and many politicians from the deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's government.
They seek to evoke the heritage of Tunisia's first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, with his focus on education and modernization, while playing down the one-party state that Tunisia had been for half a century.
Since many of its members served in pre-revolution governments, the party claims to have the necessary experience to solve Tunisia's economic problems and bring stability.
During the two years the Ennahda-led government held power, the country was battered by rising inflation, a weak economy and the growing power of radical Islamists that mounted attacks on politicians and soldiers.
The party was criticized for not managing the economy well and being too soft on radicals.
While the Islamist-led government eventually stepped down at the end of 2013 in favor of a technocratic Cabinet, it did oversee the passing of a new constitution described as the most progressive in the region.
Associated Press writer Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed to this report.