Mahmoud Abbas was elected Palestinian Authority president by a landslide, final results showed yesterday, giving the pragmatist a mandate to resume peace talks with Israel -- but also leaving him with the tough task of reining in powerful armed groups.
Israeli leaders welcomed Abbas' victory, but said they will watch closely how hard he tries to subdue militants. Abbas could easily lose his political capital over a major bombing or shooting attack, and while most militant groups signaled they are willing to give him a chance, not all have signed on to a truce with Israel.
Still, Abbas' victory held out the promise of a new era after four decades of chaotic and corruption-riddled rule by Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11. Abbas, who has spoken out against violence and has the support of the international community, promises to reform the government and the unwieldy security services.
Many Palestinians had high expectations of Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen.
"Today is the beginning of a new future," said Sami Radwan, 55, a restaurant owner in Gaza City. "Abu Mazen is the right choice. He is the one who can bring us peace, good business and security."
Abbas won 62.3 percent of the vote, according to final results announced yesterday. Abbas' main challenger, independent Mustafa Barghouti, won about 20 percent, while the remaining five candidates scored in the lower single digits.
There was some confusion about voter participation, a possible point of contention between Abbas' Fatah movement, which was pushing for a high turnout, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, which had called for a boycott.
In his acceptance speech, Abbas said he faces a difficult mission, but he reiterated that he would not go after militants. Instead, he said, he wants to "give our fugitives a life of dignity," referring to those wanted by Israel.
"I present this victory to the soul of Yasser Arafat and present it to our people and to our martyrs," Abbas added.
After exit polls predicted a sweeping Abbas victory, cheering supporters took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza late Sunday. Gunmen fired in the air, motorists honked horns and members of Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, wearing checkered black-and-white headbands, danced in the streets.
The Islamic militant Hamas, the largest opposition group, announced Monday it will work with Abbas, despite misgivings about what it said were voting irregularities, including a decision to keep polls open two hours longer than planned. Hamas had called for a boycott of the election, but did not try to disrupt the vote.
A US observer team headed by Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, and John Sununu, a Republican from New Hampshire, said in a statement that the Palestinians "have conducted a clean, open and fair election, largely unimpeded and without interference."
In Washington, US President George W. Bush called the election a "historic" step toward a Palestinian state.
"The United States stands ready to help the Palestinian people realize their aspirations," Bush said. "The new Palestinian president and his Cabinet face critical tasks ahead, including fighting terrorism, combatting corruption, building reformed and democratic institutions and reviving the Palestinian economy."
David Pearce, the US consul in Jerusalem, said he was struck by the civic pride of the voters and their new sense of hope.