Palestinians held their first presidential election in nine years yesterday, choosing a successor to longtime leader Yasser Arafat in a vote many across the world hoped would usher in a moderate leadership and revitalize the Middle East peace process.
Mahmoud Abbas, candidate of Arafat's ruling Fatah movement, was expected to win easily. But he was struggling to capture a clear mandate to push forward with his agenda of resuming peace talks and reforming the corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority. Arafat died on Nov. 11.
Israel said it is ready to meet with Abbas after the election, offering to release Palestinian prisoners if he can halt Palestinian rocket attacks.
Polls opened at 7am, with 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem eligible to vote, though an election official said the actual number of eligible voters may be lower due to outdated registration lists. Preliminary results were expected shortly after the polls closed at 7pm.
Voters trickled into stations early yesterday, and activity picked up in many areas by midmorning.
Voting went smoothly in most areas, although international observers complained of confusion at Jerusalem voting stations. Police broke up two small demonstrations by Israeli extremists trying to disrupt voting in the city.
Palestinian police officer Mohammed Juma was one of the first voters at the Jalil school in Gaza City. He turned his pistol in at the entrance before casting his vote for Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen.
"I believe he is the only one capable of taking us to the safe side of this ocean of conflict," he said.
Abbas, accompanied by his family, cast his vote at the Palestinian headquarters building in Ramallah.
"The election is going well and that indicates that the Palestinian people are heading toward democracy." He added that Israeli "obstacles exist, but our people's will is stronger than any obstacle."
According to opinion polls, Abbas holds a clear lead over his leading challenger, democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti. Five other candidates are running.
Analysts cautioned, however, that Abbas would need a strong showing -- perhaps up to two-thirds of the vote -- to be able to effectively deal with both militants and Israel. Recent polls forecast Abbas winning anywhere from 52 percent to 65 percent support.
Abbas has made it clear that his fundamental goal is the same as Arafat's: An end to Israeli occupation and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as its capital. He also hopes to reform his government.
He faces a difficult balancing act. He is likely to face resistance from within the corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority and from militants intent on continuing their attacks against Israel.
On the other hand, Abbas is under heavy pressure from Israel to crack down on the militants.
"After the elections, we want to see ... a strategic decision to fight the terror and incitement," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio.
Abbas has so far resisted calls for a crackdown. Instead, he hopes to persuade militants to halt their attacks on Israel.
Part of that task will involve dealing with the Islamic group Hamas, which boycotted yesterday's election. Others militants are affiliated with Fatah, but operate with great autonomy in local areas.