Ennahda claims top spot in Tunisia elections

Islamists are the largest party but secularists have assembly majority.

A supporter of the moderate Islamic party Ennahda holds a flare in celebration at the party's headquarters in Tunis, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. Preliminary results from polling stations across Tunisia indicate that the Islamist Ennahda Party took the largest share of votes by far in the country's landmark elections. (AP Photo/Amine Landoulsi)
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TUNIS // A moderate Islamist party banned for decades but empowered by Tunisia's January revolution claimed first place yesterday in elections held on Sunday.

With votes still being counted, the Ennahda party said it had had captured more than 40 per cent of seats in a 217-member national assembly that will name a fresh interim government and draft a new constitution. Final official results were expected late last night.

While victory would make Ennahda the leading force in Tunisian politics, secularist parties were expected to take a majority of assembly seats. The months ahead will tell whether both camps can work together on badly needed political and economic reform.

Founded in the late 1970s, Hizb Ennahda - or Renaissance Party - was persecuted by president Habib Bourguiba and banned from elections in 1989 by his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

A strong showing in those elections by Ennahda members who ran as independents alarmed Ben Ali, who saw the party as the main threat to his brand of secularist autocracy.

His regime accused Ennahda of plotting violence and hunted down its members. Thousands were arrested or fled abroad.

In January, Ben Ali fled Tunisia after weeks of street protests. Two weeks later, the Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi flew home from two decades of exile in Britain to cheering crowds at Tunis airport.

With ample funding and legions of campaigners, Ennahda has steamed to the head of dozens of parties vying to remake Tunisia after the collapse of Ben Ali's regime.

It has called for a national unity government to bridge the Islamist-secularist divide and vowed to uphold Tunisia's progressive laws on women's rights.