Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) -- Official results have yet to be published, but preliminary returns appear to show that the once-banned moderate Islamist party Ennahda has won Tunisia's historic elections, according to several political parties and Tunisian media outlets.
On Tuesday night, victory celebrations erupted outside the modest office building in downtown Tunis where Ennahda is headquartered. A crowd of about a hundred party supporters gathered, singing the national anthem, clapping and chanting.
Tunisians awoke Tuesday to the front page of El Maghreb newspaper, which featured a giant photo of Ennahda leader Rachid Ghanouchi next to a saluting member of the presidential guard, with the caption "Ennahda close to the government?"
Meanwhile, the French-language daily Le Temps depicted a presidential throne on a pillar carrying the Ennahda logo, followed by smaller chairs atop two smaller columns labeled with the secular parties Congres pour la Republique (CPR) and Ettakatol.
Boubaker Bethabet, secretary-general of the Independent High Authority for the Election, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that preliminary results were available for five districts. Of the 39 seats available in those districts, Ennahda took 15, CPR took six and Ettakatol took four. Those results still must be certified, he said.
Representatives from all three parties told CNN their own preliminary results showed that Ennahda captured first place, followed by CPR and Ettakatol. The parties were already looking forward to the possibility of establishing a governing coalition in the future 217-seat Constituent Assembly.
"It's possible ... I hope we can put a coalition of this type together," said CPR leader Moncef Marzouki, when asked about the possibility of establishing a coalition of the three apparent front-runners.
Marzouki said Tunisians had demonstrated in the country's first free election in modern history their vision for the future of the country.
"Tunisians want centrist politics," he said. "They want an Arab-Muslim identity (Ennahda) and also democracy and human rights represented by the two parties CPR and Ettakatol."
The vote was historic not only in Tunisia -- which, until now, hadn't had a national election since it became independent in 1956 and for 23 years was ruled by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali -- but also in the region and the world. Since Ali was ousted in January -- a month after 26-year-old street vendor Muhammad Al Bouazizi set himself afire after a police officer seized his goods -- residents in several other Arab nations have similarly rallied for democratic reforms and against their leaders, many of whom held power for decades and allowed little dissent.
Mohamed Kamez Jendoubi, the head of the country's election commission, said Monday that more than 80% of the North African nation's registered voters cast ballots Sunday. According to Tunisia Afrique Presse, 4,100,812 people registered to vote prior to the election in a country of more than 10 million. But Jendoubi said many unregistered voters -- "mostly youth and women" -- showed up Sunday for last-minute registration.
As early as Monday night, top Ennahda party officials were already celebrating CPR and Ettakatol's expected second and third place finishes in the vote count.
"We're happy that the second and third party are serious parties that never resorted to scare tactics," said Moadh Kheriji, Ghanouchi's chief of staff.
But the rise of a party closely identified with Islam sounded alarm bells for Tunisian secularists.
Tuesday afternoon, a group of about 200 protesters gathered outside the headquarters of Tunisia's electoral commission to denounce the expected Ennahda victory.
Some carried signs saying "No to fraud."
Meanwhile, the mood was gloomy in Tunis' upscale neighborhood of Menzah, where patrons at a swish coffee shop were commiserating about Ennahda's apparent victory.
"We are scared about losing some freedom, some rights. Especially women are scared," said Zohra Marzouk, who works for a company that distributes beer.
But in an interview with CNN, the daughter of Ennahda's leader insisted women like Marzouk have nothing to fear.
"I'm a Tunisian woman. I'd be the first concerned if there was a change. I'm a working woman, I'm active in civil society," said Soumaya Ghanouchi, an academic who lived in exile for 22 years until last January's revolution. "I personally don't see any contradiction between Islam and ... women's rights."
Ghanouchi said that she hoped Ennahada would provide an democratic model to other Islamist political movements in the region, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
"That's the lesson Ennahada can give other Islamist movements in the region. Its how we work together with other political parties in spite of ideological differences. Its really a practical program of change."