- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Mahmoud Abbas was overwhelmingly elected to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian president yesterday, exit polls showed, providing a strong mandate for a politician who backs an immediate reopening of peace talks with Israel.

The election, the first vote for a Palestinian head of state in nine years, propelled Mr. Abbas from a reclusive Arafat deputy into the forefront as a leader who Palestinians hope will end four years of violence, overhaul their government and resuscitate their economy.

Official results were scheduled to be released today, but a poll conducted by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey research indicated that Mr. Abbas had won 66 percent to 70 percent of the vote, while the leading challenger, Mustafa Barghouti, received just 19.7 percent.

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission estimated the voter turnout at 70 percent, but acknowledged that tens of thousands of votes could be subject to review.

“We present this victory as a present to Yasser Arafat,” Mr. Abbas told supporters at an election rally in Ramallah. “The minor struggle is over, and now the time has come for the greater struggle. Victory is beautiful, and preserving it will be even more beautiful.”

There were no major complaints about Israeli interference after its army relaxed roadblocks in the West Bank, but Mr. Barghouti criticized a decision by the elections commission to allow Palestinians who hadn’t registered to vote.

The elections commission acknowledged that it had permitted voters whose names appeared on an out-of-date civil registry to participate after being besieged by complaints from people who were barred from the ballot box.

There also were complaints that the ink used to mark voters and prevent repeat balloting could be washed off easily. Late in the afternoon, the elections commission extended the voting by two hours until 9 p.m. out of concern about a low turnout.

In Washington, President Bush welcomed the peaceful election as “essential for the establishment of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and peaceful Palestinian state” and said the new Palestinian leadership faces “critical tasks” in fighting terrorism and corruption.

Calling for both Israel and neighboring Arab states to create the conditions for an end to violence, he said, “The United States is looking carefully at how we can best organize and fund our own efforts to help the parties achieve a lasting peace.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to invite Mr. Abbas for talks in the next week, at which time he reportedly will offer the Palestinian leader concrete benefits in exchange for a concerted effort to halt rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

The election was monitored by hundreds of international observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman. The observers were scheduled to release a preliminary report today.

“We are so proud as Palestinians that for the first time in Arab history, we went to the polls and elected a president out of seven candidates in a free and fair election,” said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.

“It’s a new morning. We have an overloaded wagon of complexities. The first thing to do is to resume negotiations with Israel. That’s our party’s line.”

Hamas stationed its own monitors at the polling stations even though it refused to run a candidate for president. A spokesman for the Islamic militant group said he hoped the vote would be a success, but charged that the balloting was flawed because of the lack of a serious challenger to Mr. Abbas.

“Without competition, it is very difficult to say that this is a fair election,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza. “The people didn’t know anything about the people participating in the presidential election. With Hamas participating, it would be a hot election.”

Balloting in war-torn Gaza was eerily calm during the election, and the lines were short at polling stations. Voters who backed Mr. Abbas said he represented an opportunity to change the Palestinians’ political standing internationally and reform the government.

At a polling station in the Jabaliya refugee district, a stronghold of militants, the entrance to a polling station was decorated with colorful political graffiti. Ashraf Al-Ajrami, a columnist for the Palestinian Al-Ayyam daily, said the elections were a celebration of Palestinian democracy and an instrument of change.

“People think that in the future there will be a change in institutions and a realistic leadership,” he said. “Then the U.S. and Europe will pressure Israel.”

But supporters of Mr. Barghouti argued that Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, wasn’t serious about making meaningful reforms and weeding out corruption.

“Abu Mazen has been in power for 12 years, and he hasn’t changed anything,” said Mahmoud Abu Rukhba. “I don’t think Abu Mazen will get us out of the cycle of violence.”

Many Gaza residents cited the economy as the most important issue for the new president to address. With unemployment estimated at about 60 percent in Gaza, residents are hopeful that Mr. Abbas will create more jobs for the Palestinians.

More than 100,000 Gaza residents used to work in Israel, and they are hoping that Mr. Abbas can persuade the Israelis to let them go back to their old jobs.

But there were those who said they didn’t plan on voting because they doubted that any of the candidates would be able to alter the difficult reality of poverty and Israeli incursions.

“The working people aren’t connected to a party,” said Osama Bathini, a taxi driver who talks with nostalgia about the days when he used to drive Israeli buses.

“We want to work. What do I profit by voting for Fatah?” he said, referring to the party of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas.

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