Hard-liners dominated the early victories Thursday in an election to decide who will control the Northern Ireland Assembly - and hold the key to revived power-sharing in this British territory.
The Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Catholics of Sinn Fein appeared on course to strengthen their hold over each side of the assembly. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley and his deputy, Peter Robinson, were among the first to win easy re-election.
Vote-counting is likely to take two days before all winners of the 108-member assembly are declared. Northern Ireland's complex system of proportional representation allows voters to pick candidates in order of preference, requiring ballots to be counted several times.
At stake is achieving the central aim of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998: an administration drawn equally from the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority that can govern Northern Ireland in stability and a spirit of compromise.
A moderate-led coalition collapsed in 2002. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein triumphed in the last assembly elections in 2003, making power-sharing harder to revive, principally because Paisley rejected the Good Friday pact and refused even to talk to Sinn Fein.
Paisley, as leader of the top vote-winning party, could claim the top power-sharing post of "first minister," while Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness would be his party's candidate for "deputy first minister," a position with equal powers despite its title.
The moderate parties that led the previous administration - the Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or SDLP and the Protestants of the Ulster Unionists - were expected to finish in third and fourth place.
They would receive two posts each in the next 12-member administration.
Of the first 20 seats to be declared, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein won nine each.
The Democratic Unionists will face immediate pressure from the British, Irish and US governments to cut a deal with Sinn Fein.
But Paisley, an anti-Catholic evangelist who during a four-decade career has sought repeatedly to thwart compromise with Catholics, said he would not be rushed.
"The hard negotiations are now going to start," Paisley, 80, said outside a ballot-counting center in the hard-line Protestant town of Ballymena.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair insists that the new assembly must form an administration by next week, so that Britain can transfer control of 13 government departments to Belfast hands by March 26.
If that deadline is missed, Blair has promised to disband the assembly the following day, effectively giving up on a decade of toiling to deliver a power-sharing system.
But Paisley has not committed to cooperating with Sinn Fein, which for decades supported the IRA's failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland.
Paisley has soared in Protestant popularity on a platform vowing never to work with Sinn Fein unless the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein accepts British law and order.
Adams - who wants to gain power in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which faces its own parliamentary elections in mid-2007 - has come close to delivering Paisley's demands.
The IRA renounced violence and surrendered its weapons stockpiles in 2005. International experts last year said the outlawed group had stopped recruiting and training members, and disbanded units responsible for military planning, such as smuggling and designing weapons.
Adams last month rallied overwhelming support from Sinn Fein's grass-roots members for a policy U-turn - to begin cooperating with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. But the Democratic Unionists say Sinn Fein remains unwilling to help police solve certain kinds of crimes, particularly those involving members of the IRA and other anti-British paramilitary groups.