RAMALLAH, West Bank—A decisive majority elected Mahmoud Abbas president of the Palestinian Authority Sunday, endorsing his call to reopen peace talks with Israel and to try to end four years of violence.
Abbas, who enjoys broad support internationally, including from the Bush administration, replaces Yasser Arafat, who dominated Palestinian politics for 40 years before his death in November. His election raises hope that a new era of more peaceful relations between Israel and Palestinians can begin, although realists in both camps warn that mistrust remains deep and progress is likely to be slow at best.
Despite such caveats, Palestinians voiced pride in the election.
"It's a good opportunity for the world to show we are democratic and to have the world not view us through Israeli eyes" as terrorists, said Deputy Palestinian Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Ramallah residents poured into the streets to celebrate Abbas' victory and dozens of young men drove around shooting into the air. At a rally, the 69-year-old Abbas dedicated his win to Arafat.
President Bush issued a statement calling Abbas' election "a historic day for the Palestinian people and for the people of the Middle East." Bush pledged to work with Abbas in helping him build democratic institutions and reviving the Palestinian economy, and he said that "Israel must help."
While exit polls suggested that Abbas won with a vote margin in the 65-70 percent range, voter turnout appeared lower than expected and analysts said that could weaken his authority. Palestinian election officials extended voting by two hours to allow more Palestinians to vote. Up to 1.8 million Palestinians were eligible to vote, but unofficial estimates suggested less than 50 percent had voted.
Hanna Nasser, who heads the Palestinian election commission, later declared a preliminary turnout of up to 70 percent of the 1.1 million registered voters, as well as 10 percent of 700,000 Palestinians who failed to register but who also were allowed to vote because their names appeared on a census count. Confusion over the dual lists was expected to delay the release of official results that had been scheduled for Monday morning.
Many analysts insisted that Abbas needed a voter turnout of 70 percent or higher to win a credible mandate for negotiations, rather than violence, to push Israel toward a final peace settlement. His pro-negotiation stance makes him unpopular with Palestinian militant groups, one of which officially boycotted the elections.
At least two-thirds of voters cast their ballots for Abbas, while challenger Mustafa Barghouti, a physician, trailed a distant second with no more than 20 percent, according to exit polls. Barghouti later levied charges of voter irregularities.
Abbas, accompanied by his family, cast his ballot inside the mangled government compound in Ramallah where Arafat was virtually imprisoned by Israeli troops for nearly three years. He died in a Paris hospital Nov. 11.
"The election is going well and that indicates that the Palestinian people are heading toward democracy," Abbas said. "Obstacles exist, but our people's will is stronger than any obstacle."
Palestinian officials blamed the low turnout on a mix-up with Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem, nearly 40 percent of whom were not listed on official rosters and were turned away by Israeli postal clerks overseeing ballot boxes there. A deal brokered by former President Jimmy Carter between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office and Palestinians eased the problem by early afternoon. Carter was one of 800 international observers who monitored Sunday's elections.
"People didn't know where to come and find their name on the list, so we're just going to do away with the list ... Now they won't have to go away, they can vote," Carter said Sunday afternoon outside one East Jerusalem post office accepting Palestinian ballots.
Voting went more smoothly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where there was little trace of the tension that flared at a checkpoint the day before between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.
The wife of imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti—who is serving five life terms in an Israeli military prison on charges of terror attacks against Israelis—shared that assessment. Fadwa Barghouti, whose husband was a candidate but eventually dropped out because the race threatened to split the Fatah political movement both he and Abbas belong to, said that he wrote in a recent letter that he was "proud the Palestinians had the chance to practice their right to vote."
The picture was less rosy in Khan Yunis, a Palestinian city in the southern Gaza Strip. Morning gunfire there forced a polling station to close for two hours. Israeli soldiers also stalled Palestinian men going to a polling station in the Jewish settlement-enclosed al-Mawasi neighborhood in Khan Yunis, scrutinizing each one's identification papers and forcing them to raise their shirts and pant legs to ensure they were not carrying bombs.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said on ABC's "This Week" that the Bush administration was ready to offer the new Palestinian president financial aid and help on governmental reforms. But both America and Israel are demanding that Abbas take concrete steps to crack down on militants.
"The elected leader will have to immediately begin a true war against terror and to implement reforms," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio hours before the polls closed. But Abbas is more likely to pursue a cease-fire by negotiating with the groups, including powerful Hamas, which boycotted Sunday's elections. Not all militants followed Hamas' directions.
In Beta, a northern West Bank village that on Saturday was blanketed by Israeli troops searching for Palestinian gunmen who had killed one and wounded three off-duty soldiers, 10 Hamas members cast ballots, poll worker Biyamin Dweikat said.
In the militant-rife Balata refugee camp on the edge of Nablus, Marwan Abu Haweila, 46, said he voted for Abbas because he seems like a practical leader. "Abu Mazen doesn't ask for the impossible," Haweila explained, using Abbas' nom de guerre.
Palestinians need to restore their standard of living before than can advance politically, Haweila added. "We need to lay down the arms. Let's give it a chance," he said. "We tried armed activity. It didn't achieve anything."
Moments after Haweila spoke, four militants toting large automatic rifles appeared at a polling station at a U.N.-run school in the camp. Members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades—an offshoot of Abbas' Fatah political movement—left their weapons outside the door and went inside to vote.
The four, who declined to give their names, said they voted for Abbas.
Jerusalem was likely to produce the lowest voter turnout when official results are unveiled Monday morning. Under the arrangement worked out between the Palestinians and Israel, only a few thousand Palestinians living there were permitted to vote at five postal locations inside the city; an additional 80,000 to 120,000 were told they would have to vote in the West Bank.
"I think Palestinians in East Jerusalem should have the right to vote without impediments. But this is a restriction the Israelis put on them," Carter said. "It's not the best arrangement. I hope in the future Palestinians will be able to vote wherever they live. But that's not something that can be changed on Election Day."
Of those who did vote in the city, Amin Kawasme, 48, a tailor, was among the first at the Saleddin Street Post Office in East Jerusalem. Scores of media and international observers outnumbered the 20 people who cast their ballots in the first hour.
Kawasme presented his identity papers and had his name checked on the list of registered voters. He then stepped to a service counter where an Israeli postal clerk painted his right thumbnail with indelible ink to prevent the possibility of duplicate voting.
Shielding the ballot with his hands, he marked it for Abbas. He put it in a plain white envelope and gave it to the clerk, who dropped it into a red letterbox sitting on the counter as if it were a piece of mail.
Israel had insisted on this procedure, which it views as a form of absentee balloting in a city they claim as their own. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. The same procedure was used in 1996 when Arafat was elected.
Many Palestinians with Jerusalem identity cards, such as Naseem, who would only give his first name, refused to vote for fear that by doing so they would lose their Israeli jobs and social-welfare benefits.
"This job pays 4,000 shekels ($910) a month and I don't want to take the risk," said Naseem, a waiter at a major Jewish hotel in Jerusalem. "There is no work" on the West Bank.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush contributed to this report from Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-ELECTION
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