Tunis: Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party has vowed to form a new government within a month as preliminary results gave it a commanding lead, but not a majority, in the Arab Spring's first election.
As coalition negotiations got underway in earnest, the biggest secular party defended its negotiations with Ennahda, saying the Islamist party was neither the devil nor the Taliban.
"No, no, no it is not the devil and we do not make pacts with the devil," Congress for the Republic (CPR) leader Moncef Marzouki told reporters in Tunis Wednesday.
"One must not take them for the Taliban of Tunisia. It is a moderate part of Islam."
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi said a preliminary vote tally that put it in the clear lead with 53 seats of the polling districts counted so far, made the party the "natural" choice to lead the new executive.
The CPR was the second-placed party with 18 seats so far on a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution, appoint a caretaker government and prepare for fresh elections.
As the ISIE election body said it expected to announce the final results on Thursday, the country appeared headed for complicated coalition negotiations, with all of Ennahda's possible partners on the leftist, liberal side of the political spectrum.
But Ghannouchi said a government would be put together as soon as possible, "within no more than a month."
And an executive party member told the new agencies Ennahda has put forward its number two, Hamadi Jebali, as the next head of government.
The 62-year-old, an engineer by training and a former journalist, is a co-founder of Ennahda. A vehement opponent of Ben Ali, he spent 16 years in jail, 10 in isolation, for his political activities.
Ghannouchi has always said he had no government ambitions, and was not an election candidate.
Marzouki said the protection of civil liberties and gender equality was non-negotiables, adding: "We are capable of negotiating with them (Ennahda), to ensure that these ideals are maintained in Tunisia without an ideological civil war, without a battle between the modernist pole and the Islamist pole."
The interim results gave third place to the Petition for Justice and Development -- a grouping backed by Hachmi Haamdi, a rich London-based businessman said to have close ties to Ben Ali.