Rached Ghannouchi (C), leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, gestures with his wife and two daughters Yousra (L) and Soumaya (2nd L) at a polling station during an election in Tunisia
Rached Ghannouchi (C), leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, gestures with his wife and two daughters Yousra (L) and Soumaya (2nd L) at a polling station during an election in TunisiaReuters

The Islamist Ennahda party has admitted defeat to the secular Nidaa Tounes, calling for a coalition government to be formed after a historic election for the formation of the country's first five-year parliament.

Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun said that the Islamists, who dominated previous elections, accepted the result and congratulated the winning party. "We are calling once again for the formation of a unity government in the interest of the country," he said.

Earlier, a source from Nidaa Tounes, which means Call of Tunisia, said that the party won more than 80 seats in the 217-strong parliament against 67 seats for Ennahda. Exit polls gave Nidaa Tounes 37% of the seats compared with 26% for Ennahda. "We have a picture forming and we are not as optimistic as last night," said Yusra Ghannouchi, a spokeswoman for the party, according to Associated Press.

However, calls have been repeated for Nidaa Tounes to form a national unity government or pursue a secular coalition with smaller parties. Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Nidaa Tounes, was parliament speaker under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the autocrat who was ousted in 2011 in the first Arab Spring revolt of the Middle East, but he has since tried to reinvent himself.

Ennahda, which has strong ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood party, has been tainted somewhat by its relatively poor economic legacy while it governed the country from October 2011 until January 2014.

Tunisia has often been cited as the only success of the Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011. With a new constitution and free elections, in which 60% of Tunisia's registered 5.2 million took part, the country has been deemed by some an island of liberty amid the chaos.

"This milestone in Tunisia's transition to democracy exemplifies why Tunisia remains a beacon of hope, not only to the Tunisian people, but to the region and the world," said US Secretary of State John Kerry.