By Matthew Tostevin and Camillus Eboh
ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria's ruling party looked set to see its strong grip on parliament weakened as votes emerged on Sunday from an election that observers said was the fairest for decades in Africa's most populous nation.
Election officials and party agents tallied results from 120,000 polling units stretching from the oil-producing mangrove swamps and teeming cities near the southern coast to the dustblown fringes of the Sahara desert in the north.
There were isolated reports of ballot box snatching, clashes between rival supporters in parts of the Niger Delta and two bombs in the remote northeast during the vote but observers said it appeared to have been a vast improvement on previous polls.
"I think it is fair to say this was a real election. It was a real vote," said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), who had also monitored other polls since military rule ended 12 years ago.
The vote was seen as a test of whether electoral officials could organize a smooth vote and make a break with a long history of polls discredited by ballot stuffing and thuggery.
President Goodluck Jonathan's ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) was losing out to the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the southwest and the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in parts of the north.
The ruling party nevertheless took some seats itself.
Of those declared for the House of Representatives by 1550 GMT (10:50 a.m. EDT), the ruling party had just over half compared to 77 percent in the outgoing parliament. Only around a fifth of the seats had been declared, however.
The speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole of the PDP, lost his seat, while the daughter of former president and PDP stalwart Olusegun Obasanjo lost her bid to remain in the Senate.
"Nigerians have freely spoken for once," said Emma Muogbo, a lecturer in the southeastern city of Onitsha. "Now committed people could come up to serve knowing that if they fail to do well, people could vote them out."
At a collation center on the outskirts of Abuja, it was clear the CPC was edging out the PDP across most wards as officials called out numbers above the hum of generators.
"There is no instance of trying to rig, that's why the other parties are moving in," said ruling party representative Theodore Ochei, despite disappointment that the PDP had lost in his ward at the center of Abuja.
"Even if we lost as a party, we as politicians have more respect. Our leaders might sit up and begin to respect people's views," he said.
Saturday's election, delayed by a week because of widespread logistical glitches, was the first in a cycle which includes presidential elections on April 16 and governorship polls in the country's 36 states on April 26.
"The fact we've done this despite all the hitches has set the mood for the biggest election in black Africa," said Dafe Akpedeye, head of the Swift Count local monitors group.
The African giant has failed to hold a single vote deemed credible by observers since the end of military rule in 1999.
Most Nigerians say the closest the country came to a free election was in 1993, polls which were annulled by former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, helping pave the way for another six years of military rule.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://af.reuters.com/ )
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Lagos, Ibrahim Mshelizza in Hawul, Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt, Anamesere Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Joe Brock)