TRIPOLI //While the last votes were still being cast, a moderate political group claimed an early lead in Libya's first elections since Muammar Qaddafi took power more than four decades ago.
Election officials insisted that the final results for a 200-member General National Congress, set to oversee the writing of a constitution, will not be released at least until tomorrow.
While several polling stations opened for a second day after closing amid violence in the east and south during Saturday's vote, Libyan observers said that most counts were in, with no serious irregularities reported.
According to the High National Election Committee, turnout was about 60 per cent and observers said the poll defied expectations.
"It was much, much smoother than we thought, with the Libyan population all being armed and all the problems we have had in the past," said Khadija Dabashi of the Shahed observer group.
Despite the lack of results, local media reported substantial support for the National Forces Alliance, based on tallies posted outside polling stations and information circulating on Twitter and Facebook.
The group is endorsed by Mahmoud Jibril, who played a leading role in the uprising that toppled Qaddafi last year and who was prime minister in a transitional government. A senior official from the party asserted that the group had established a substantial lead.
If the alliance were to take a majority of the 80 seats reserved for political parties, beating the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Justice and Development group and other Islamist parties, Libya would buck a strong regional trend.
In Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries where uprisings toppled leaders last year, moderate Islamist parties now dominate government. But in Libya, some think that the appeal of such groups is limited.
"I think people voted very much based on the competence and integrity of individuals," said Ian Martin, head of the UN mission in Libya.
Politicians faced major challenges in a country where political parties were banned for 42 years and the election campaign lasted less than three weeks, he said. "There was very little opportunity for dramatic differentiation between the parties."
Leaders of nations who had backed the armed struggle against Qaddafi's rule greeted the vote as momentous.
"After more than 40 years in which Libya was in the grip of a dictator, today's historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people," said Barack Obama, the US president.
The Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi said the vote "marks a key watershed in the history of the country, constituting a decisive step forward in strengthening the democratic process".