TUNIS • Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party claimed victory late on Sunday in the country's first free municipal elections, a key step in a democratic transition marred by economic disappointment.
After polling stations closed at 6pm, top Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun said the party was more than 5 per cent ahead of its secularist rival, Nidaa Tounes, citing vote counts observed by the party.
Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes are also coalition partners in the national government. They were expected to dominate the long-delayed polls, which will see officials elected in 350 municipalities for the first time since a 2011 uprising ended decades of authoritarian rule.
"This result is a reward for the new tolerant and democratic Ennahda... Ennahda which searched for consensus," Mr Zitoun said.
Ennahda will "continue to keep the consensus with our partners", spokesman Imed Khemiri said in a statement at the party headquarters in Tunis, where supporters gathered outside and sang revolutionary songs from 2011. "It's important that the two main parties won and it's important for the political balance in the country."
Mr Borhan Bsais, a Nidaa Tounes official, said his party probably trailed Ennahda by 3 to 5 per cent.
Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring, because it toppled long-serving autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali without triggering major violence.
But enthusiasm for democratic change has long given way to anger over stubbornly low living standards, which have driven some Tunisians to make the dangerous sea crossing to Europe in search of work or have prompted some to turn to militant Islam.
"I intended to boycott, but I changed my mind at the last moment," said Mr Mohamed Ali Abadi, after leaving a polling station. "We are facing a lot of economic problems but will continue our way in a real democracy."
Voter turnout was 33.7 per cent, according to the election commission, which decided to postpone elections in eight centres in Mdhila in the south because of a mistake in the ballot papers.
Clashes were reported in several areas, and political parties have spoken about violations in several towns, including attempts to influence voters and distribute money.
The main challenge will be to match voters' expectations with local budgets in a country where the central government makes the main decisions about how and where money gets spent. A new law envisages some decision-making being gradually devolved to the local level, although it remains unclear how that will work in practice.