Abbas picked as successor to Arafat
Exit polls showed Mahmoud Abbas with a more than 3-1 lead over his nearest competitor.
Published: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 11:42 p.m.
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Mahmoud Abbas appeared headed for a resounding victory Sunday in watershed elections for Palestinian president, a win that would cement his status as successor to Yasser Arafat and immediately present him with a daunting list of demands from both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide.
Abbas claimed victory after two independent Palestinian exit polls showed him with a more than 3-1 lead over his nearest competitor, physician and rights activist Mustafa Barghouti, and five other candidates.
"There are difficult tasks ahead: How are we going to build a state of security and safety? How shall we solve the issue of prisoners, how to solve the issue of our fugitives?" he said, referring to those who are in Israeli jails, or are being sought by the Israelis.
Abbas, 69, who became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization following Arafat's death in November, had been widely favored to win. Official voting results are expected today.
Abbas has called for a halt to violence and said he is ready to resume negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon under the so-called road map, a U.S.-backed peace plan that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of this year. His victory is likely to please Israel and the United States, which regard him as a relative moderate and the best hope for reviving Middle East peace efforts.
Others see him as a transitional leader who will make way for a younger generation.
Palestinians flocked to the nearly 1,100 voting stations amid a carnival-like atmosphere. Vendors set up shop near polling places, selling juice and candy on a day off from work and school. Little girls traded sweets with one another while their fathers smoked and sipped tiny cups of strong black coffee, talking endlessly of the day's events.
Election officials extended balloting for two hours and opened it up to anyone with a Palestinian identification card, prompting protests from Barghouti. Authorities said they were seeking to accommodate thousands of voters in the Gaza Strip and West Bank who had trouble determining where they were supposed to vote. Some voters had difficulty reaching polling places because of Israeli checkpoints, Palestinian officials said.
Few serious problems were reported, however, as voters braved a wintry chill to take part in the first election for Palestinian Authority president since 1996. The Central Election Commission said turnout was at least 70 percent. Some commentators had said Abbas would need a turnout of two-thirds of the 1.8 million eligible voters to claim a broad mandate.
Hundreds of foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and a delegation sent by President Bush, were on hand to monitor voting. Reports were generally positive, and observers said Israel appeared to have made good on promises to pull back soldiers to allow voters to get to polling places. Palestinian officials said, however, that checkpoints impeded some voters.
Confusion was rampant in east Jerusalem, where the Israelis designated only a handful of polling places. The vast majority of the city's 170,000 eligible Palestinian voters had to travel to outlying areas.
Since Arafat's death, hopes have been high for a new leadership that would clean up a corrupt Palestinian government and help end more than four years of violence with Israel. Those expectations now rest with Abbas, a longtime PLO functionary who has urged an end to armed resistance.
Palestinians boasted the election was a rare instance of democracy at work in the Arab world and marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Palestinian movement for an independent state.
The new president inherits a Palestinian government discredited by years of corruption and mismanagement and hobbled during the intifada, now in its fifth year. The conflict has left the Palestinian economy in shambles and its public fatigued.
The leader also must find a way to head off strife among Palestinian factions, including clashes among a patchwork of official security forces.Abbas' own Fatah movement, which dominates Palestinian politics, is divided, with a restive younger breed seeking more power.
It remains to be seen how much trouble the new president will face from Islamist groups such as Hamas, which boycotted the election. Abbas said launching rockets at Israeli communities by militants in the Gaza Strip only invites forceful reactions by Israel and hurts Palestinians more than it helps them.
The militants have defied Abbas, continuing their rocket salvos and even asking him to apologize for criticizing the attacks.
Israel's Channel Two reported Hamas had made an agreement with the Abbas camp to refrain from election day violence. In Gaza, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said that although Hamas was not participating in the vote, it had decided to "respect" the process.
Some analysts believe Hamas, battered by Israeli assassinations that have killed most of its top leaders, will turn increasingly to electoral politics, though the group's appeal at the ballot box will depend heavily on whether the daily lives of Palestinians get better under continued Fatah leadership.
If conditions improve under Abbas, "Hamas will become only a voice in opposition," said Manuel Hassassian, a political science professor at Bethlehem University.
In Gaza City, a steady stream of voters ignored the boycott, even though the coastal territory is a Hamas stronghold. "This vote allows us to choose the best man for our people," said Issa Barghouti, a 53-year-old engineer.
Many Palestinians believe among the greatest challenges will be quelling the lawlessness that has plagued the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in recent months. "We are afraid to walk the streets," said Itab Kabaha, 26, a teacher voting in Ramallah.
No matter who is president, many Palestinians say, it is Israel that wields the most power over their daily lives and holds the key to easing their hardships. Military checkpoints and Israeli raids targeting armed militants have damaged commerce while making it difficult for residents to get from one place to another.
"What Israel wants, we will get. Nothing else," said Najwa Khoury, 50, a university administrative assistant who voted in Bir Zeit, outside Ramallah.
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Abbas will surely encounter hefty expectations from Israel.
Israeli leaders say the new Palestinian leadership must act to curb militant groups and anti-Israeli incitement. Israel is considering releasing some Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a halt in the rocket attacks, Israeli media reported Sunday.
"Now, after being elected, the main challenge is still ahead for him," Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." "Will he fight against the terrorists? Will he try to stop this bloody, violent war against the state of Israel? This is the main question."
Sharon refused to deal with Arafat, saying he encouraged terrorism.
In a statement, the White House praised the strong turnout and said the United States was willing to help the Palestinians fight terrorism, combat corruption, build democracy and revive their economy. It also called on Israel to improve Palestinians' living conditions and economic situation.
Abbas, a onetime Palestinian negotiator with admirers on the Israeli side, will hope for more fruitful dealings with Sharon than he had as Palestinian prime minister in 2003. Abbas resigned after four months, frustrated by constant run-ins with Arafat and resentful that Sharon refused him any big achievements, such as a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners.
While Arafat was fiery and charismatic, Abbas is colorless and retiring. But many Palestinian moderates viewed his calls for ending violence as a daring move. After the comments were publicized, polls showed an increase in the number of Palestinians who opposed armed struggle.
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