Opposition leading Iceland vote in early count

Iceland's centre-right opposition took the lead after polls closed Saturday in parliamentary elections, as voters punished the leftist coalition for austerity measures during its four years in power, according to early estimates.

A partial count of ballots in four of the country's six voting districts showed the centrist-agrarian Progressive Party with 16 parliamentary seats, the conservative Independence Party with 19 seats and the Social Democratic Alliance Party trailing its rivals with just 10 seats.

The Pirate Party, a new file-sharing activist movement, appeared to have wind in its sails, winning four seats, according to the projection.

The 63-seat parliament, known as the Althing, is elected by proportional representation.

The projection did not include the two all-important Reykjavik districts.

Two men are battling for the post of prime minister: the Progressives' Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, 38, and the Independence Party's Bjarni Benediktsson, 43.

Both are running on populist platforms promising to ease household debt after homeowners were hit by spiralling costs for inflation-linked mortgages, as the value of the Icelandic krona collapsed.

"I'm very pleased," Gunnlaugsson, whose party suffered a heavy loss in 2009, told public broadcaster RUV.

His social democratic counterpart, Arni Pall Arnason, was less enthusiastic.

"We are obviously losing a lot," he told the channel.

Foreign Minister Oessur Skarphedinsson, a vocal proponent of European Union membership for Iceland, described the result as "a great disappointment".

The Progressive Party and the Independence Party have a long history of governing together.

Pirate Party leaders said they were cheered by the numbers, which indicated it could become the first party its kind to win seats in a national parliament.

"If the results were confirmed, it would be historic," co-founder Birgitta Jonsdottir said.