TUNIS Tunisian election officials on Thursday confirmed the Islamist Ennahda party as winner of the North African country's election, setting it up to form the first Islamist-led government in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Ennahda has tried to reassure secularists and investors, nervous about the prospect of Islamist rule in one of the Arab world's most liberal countries, by saying it would not stop tourists wearing bikinis on beaches or impose Islamic banking.
It has put forward one of its officials for the prime minister's job, after it scored a resounding victory in the country's first ever free election after a Jan. 14 revolution ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Announcing the results, election commission members said Ennahda had won 90 seats in the 217-seat assembly which will draft a new constitution, and form an interim government.
Its nearest rival, the secularist Congress for the Republic, won 30 votes, commission members told a packed hall in the capital, ending a four-day wait since Sunday's poll for the painstaking count to be completed.
"The elections were as our people and youth wanted them to be -- democratic, transparent, clean and pluralistic, in a break with the past," said deputy commission head Souad Triki.
"At this historic moment, we can only salute the spirit of our innocent martyrs and the endurance of the youth of Jan. 14," she said.
Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, fell short of an absolute majority in the new assembly but is expected to form a coalition with two of the secularist runners-up. The Islamists will get the biggest say on important posts.
The results were in line with Ennahda's own predictions. Tunisia's complex election system means that it is impossible for any one party to win a majority of assembly seats.
Ennahda lies at the moderate and liberal end of the spectrum of Islamist parties in the Middle East. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, models his approach on the moderate stance of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
"NOT A DARK FORCE"
Beji Caid Sebsi, Tunisia's current prime minister who is now likely to be replaced by an Ennahda official, said in comments published on Thursday that he had no reason to doubt Ennahda's commitment to the secular state and democracy.
"I can't judge intentions, that's up to God. I can only judge by what's public and so far it's positive. At the end of the day, no one can come and change things completely," he told Egypt's al-Ahram daily.
"I think (Ennahda) will rule intelligently and deal with reality. It is not necessarily a dark force. Tunisia will continue to move forward and not go against history."
In an effort to project a message of continuity and to calm investors' jitters, a senior Ennahda official said many cabinet officials might retain their jobs, including the finance minister and central bank governor.
"The tendency is to keep the same strategy, except for some ministers whose performance has been lamentable," Samir Dilou, a member of Ennahda's executive bureau, told Reuters.
Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller from the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, set fire to himself in December last year in protest at poverty and government repression.
His suicide unleashed protests which swelled into a national uprising that, weeks later, forced Ben Ali and his family to flee to Saudi Arabia after 23 years of autocratic rule.
Tunisia's revolution inspired uprisings which unseated entrenched rulers in Egypt and Libya, and which convulsed Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
The Islamist election win is likely to resonate in Egypt, which is start its own vote in November and where an Islamist party with ideological ties to Ennahda is tipped to do well.
No Islamists have obtained power in the Middle East since Hamas won a 2006 election in the Palestinian Territories, but the uprisings which reshaped the political landscape this year have created an opening for them.
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Tim Pearce)