TRIPOLI The National Forces Alliance of Libyan wartime premier Mahmoud Jibril extended its lead over Islamists in landmark free elections with a landslide victory in the eastern city of Benghazi, new partial vote tallies showed on Wednesday.
The North African country's first national vote in six decades has been hailed as a success by observers despite election-day bloodshed that claimed at least two lives.
Results from Saturday's election so far point to a crushing defeat for the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) that is the political arm of Libya's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - a sharp break with the electoral gains chalked up by Islamists in other Arab Spring countries such as Egypt or Tunisia.
Benghazi, the cradle of last year's uprising against dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has been not only a JCP hub but also saw violent election-day protests against the vote by easterners who want more autonomy from the capital Tripoli.
But with 70 percent of the ballot counted, Jibril's NFA had won 95,733 votes in the constituency against just 16,143 for Justice and Construction, official tallies showed.
That followed other wins right across the country for the alliance of some 60 moderate parties, including in eastern towns such as Derna, long seen as a hardline Islamist stronghold.
The national election commission initially said it would have preliminary results ready by Wednesday but it is still not clear when it will have even partial returns from Tripoli.
In any case, the gains of the Western-educated Jibril do not automatically translate into dominance of the 200-seat national assembly that is to choose a prime minister and cabinet before setting the stage for full parliamentary elections in 2013.
This is because candidates on party lists have only been allotted 80 seats, meaning they will be outnumbered by independent candidates whose allegiances are hard to pin down.
"With our own numbers we are almost certain that we have the majority in the independent seats," said JCP head Mohammed Sawan. "Maybe the final result will show that Justice and Construction is the leading party," he told Reuters.
Analysts say Jibril has benefited from his prominence as one of the main figures of last year's revolt to end 42 years of autocracy under Muammar Gaddafi, and is perceived by many Libyans as a safe pair of hands for rebuilding the economy.
He was also leading in Sabha, the main town of the desert south. Justice and Construction led in the central area of Shati - one of the few places where Jibril's alliance did not stand.
Many of the candidates of Justice and Construction were either less well known or hamstrung by local perceptions that their party has ties with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood that would clash with a strong local sense of national sovereignty.
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood has always denied formal links with its Egyptian counterpart but has not been able to shake off a local belief that the two have close affiliations.
NOT SECULAR, NOT LIBERAL
Jibril, widely perceived as a moderate, rejects the labels of liberal and secular in a religiously conservative country where Islamic values are integral to the political debate.
Independent candidate Abu Bakr Abdel-Gader told Reuters he had been approached by Justice and Construction to join the party - an offer he turned down.
"I refused to join the JCP. I didn't fight a revolution and carry bloodied martyrs from the front line (only) for Islamists to take over and close us off from the world again," he said. "Libyans are ready to experience democracy and only educated liberals with a world view can bring it."
Despite the relatively peaceful elections, Libya remains riven by regional and tribal tensions and is full of guns in private hands after the conflict.
A stand-off between the Western Region towns of Misrata and Bani Walid continued after the kidnapping this week in Bani Walid - a former Gaddafi stronghold - of two local TV reporters who work for the Misrata-based Tobacts TV station.
Reporters Without Borders said the journalists' captors had reportedly demanded the release of detainees in Misrata in return for freeing the pair. Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagour demanded their immediate release.
Local Al-Assama television quoted Bani Walid military chief Salim Al-Waar as saying he would guarantee the reporters' safety and return them to Misrata at some point in the future.
Militia fighters in Misrata initially threatened to enter Bani Walid to forcibly liberate the two reporters. But Al-Assama quoted the local military chief in Misrata as saying he had ordered fighters to hold back from any such action for now.
(Additional reporting by Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Ali Shuaib in Tripoli; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Mark Heinrich)