TUNIS (AFP) - Tunisians queued in their hundreds to vote in their first free elections on Sunday, basking in their status as democratic trail-blazers nine months after their revolution sparked the Arab Spring. An Islamist party is predicted to win the most votes but fall short of a majority in a new 217-member assembly that will rewrite the constitution and appoint a caretaker government after decades of autocratic rule. Long lines of people formed snaking queues before dawn that kept growing outside polling stations in the capital and its suburbs, keen to take part in the contest after decades of autocratic rule. "The turnout of Tunisians exceeded all expectations," elections chief Kamel Jendoubi told journalists five hours into voting, adding the final rate "may exceed 60 percent". Voter Houcine Khlifi, 62, had tears in his eyes as he spoke of finally casting his ballot after spending a sleepless night in excited anticipation. "Tunisia today offers the world a bouquet of flowers of liberty and dignity," he told AFP at a central Tunis polling station. "We break with the past and we come to life again. Thanks to the revolution that allowed us to end the tyranny," Khlifi said. Some 7.2 million people are eligible to vote for a new constituent assembly in 12 hours of polling that started at 07.00 am (0600 GMT). Jendoubi lamented that some political parties had broken a blanket campaign ban that entered into force on Saturday. "Several parties continued their campaign," he said without naming them, adding that some politicians also put pressure on illiterate balloters while others sent mobile phone text messages in a bid to influence voters. The Islamist Ennahda party, banned by the country's long-time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, is tipped to win the biggest bloc of votes. But in a sign of the tension between Islamists and secularists who accuse Ennahda of a hidden radical agenda, the party's leader Rached Ghannouchi was heckled after voting in a Tunis suburb, with queuing voters shouting "degage (leave)" while calling him a "bastard" and a "terrorist". Until recently in exile, Ghannouchi was stopped by fellow voters as he headed for the entrance upon arrival at the voting station in Tunis' El Manzah. "The queue, the queue Democracy starts here," they objected, and the party leader made his way to the back of the line more than a kilometre (half a mile) long. "This turnout demonstrates the people's thirst for democracy," he said with a smile. Sunday's vote is the first-ever open contest in a country where the outcome of elections used to be a foregone conclusion, and the first run by an independent electoral body after decades of ballot stuffing by the interior ministry. Ben Ali was ousted in January after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, in a popular uprising that sparked region-wide uprisings which claimed their latest Arab strongman Thursday with the killing of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. The European Union hailed Tunisia's elections and vowed support for the new authorities, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said: "As the first country in the region to put democracy to the test at the polling booth, Tunisia is once again leading the way." Michael Gaelher, head of the European Union observer mission, told AFP: "Up to now, it (the election) is very positive. The people are calm, happy, patient." The constituent assembly will decide what system of government the country will have and how to guarantee basic liberties, including women's rights which many fear Ennahda would seek to diminish despite its assurances to the contrary. Ennahda claims to model itself on the ruling AKP party in Turkey, another Muslim-majority country which like Tunisia has a secular state. Depending on the election results, it may seek to form a coalition with smaller parties to gain a larger say on the assembly, which will also have the authority to write laws and pass budgets. Tunisia's progressive left remains divided before Ennahda, with party leaders having failed to form a pre-vote alliance. Some prefer to await the election results to weigh their options. In polls witnessed by some 40,000 security force members and 13,000 observers, Tunisians can choose from more than 11,000 candidates -- half of them women by law -- representing 80 political parties and several thousand independent. Vote counting will start as soon as polling stations close at 7.00 pm (1800 GMT), with results updated throughout the night. The final tally will be released on Monday.