Once-banned Islamist party on course to win election in Tunisia

Counting was well under way last night for votes in Tunisia's first free election, with a once-banned Islamist party on track for victory.

The centre-left Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), polling in second place, conceded defeat to the moderate Islamic Ennahda party, which showed a lead around the country, according to poll centre results posted by Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM.

The poll has been lauded a resounding success and a major democratic step in a country whose revolution earlier this year overthrew the autocratic President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and inspired protests across the region.

More than 90 per cent of 4.1 million registered citizens turned out to vote on Sunday, although the overall turnout – with three million unregistered voters – was not known. Although there were sporadic complaints of abuses such as vote-buying, independent observers assured that the election had been clean and fair. Official results were expected to be released by this afternoon.

Many were saying that, whatever happened in the vote, all of Tunisia won just by having this election. One 40-year-old man in Medina, Tunis, said: "We still have no money, no jobs, but you can see today all our faces are happy." Another, Taher, 41, said that the country would never again put up with a dictator: "We would go straight back on to the streets."

As the ink-stain – proof of voting – fades from people's fingers, this precious experience of democracy is not likely to be forgotten so easily.