TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's moderate Islamist party Ennahda, banned for decades, emerged the official victor in the nation's first free elections, taking 41.47 percent of the vote and 90 of 217 seats in an assembly that will write a new constitution, the electoral commission announced.
The Thursday announcement of final results in the landmark vote capped an ebullient period for this small North African country, which inspired the Arab Spring as it moves toward democracy after more than a half-century under one-party systems.
However, protests linked to the party placing fourth in Sunday's voting erupted in and around Sidi Bouzid, the town where the uprising that drove this North African nation's strongman from power.
The leader of Areedha Chaabiya, or Popular Petition party, Hachemi Hamdi, announced on national television that he was withdrawing the 19 seats his party won after the electoral commission invalidated six of its lists.
The results carried other surprises, like the second place, and 30 seats, won by the Congress for the Republic party, founded in 2001 by noted human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, a doctor who had lived in exile in Paris.
The third-placed party was the center-left Ettakatol, or the Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedoms, led by Mustapha Ben Jaafar, also a doctor. It won 21 seats in the constituent assembly.
The final results remain provisional until after any appeals are studied, a process that could take up to two weeks, according to Ridha Torkhani, a member of the electoral commission.
In Sidi Bouzid, soldiers fired warning shots after hundreds of alleged supporters of Areedhya Chaabiya flooded the streets and burned tires, according to a witness reached by telephone, Attia Athmouni.
The official TAP news agency said people were angry over the invalidation of the six lists of Areedha Chaabiya.
However, earlier in the day, some residents had already expressed displeasure with reported remarks from an Ennahda official scolding the population for letting money sway their votes.
Areedha Chaabiya's leader, Hachemi Hamdi, a native son of Sidi Bouzid and owner of the Mustaqila satellite television channel based in London, had broadcast promises to give Tunisians free health care, new factories and thousands of jobs.
Electoral officials ultimately invalidated five lists tarnished by financing violations and one led by a former member of the ruling RCD party — now banned.
Protests spread to nearby Menzel Bouzayane where more than 1,000 people demonstrated, union official Mohamed Fadhel said by telephone.In Meknassy, 50 kilometers from Sidi Bouzid, demonstrators set fire to Ennahda's party office, Fadhel said.
Ennahda's leading role in fashioning a new Tunisia was evident shortly after the vote. However, electoral authorities had said they were slow in announcing full results because they were taking care with counting and verifying.
Officials of the party have said they are seeking a broad-based coalition government to replace the interim team in charge of this small North African nation since protests forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee in January. He took refuge in Saudi Arabia.
Ennahda has also vowed to wary Tunisians that democratic liberties such as gender equality will be respected in line with Muslim Tunisia's strong secular tradition.
International observers praised Tunisia for an exemplary election.
Tunisia's path forward is under scrutiny after it led the way for Arab neighbors in casting off dictators, in Egypt and later in Libya — proclaimed liberated last Sunday as Tunisians went in droves to the polls.