Hamas makes strong showing in Palestinian elections, exit polls show
RAMALLAH, West Bank – Hamas made a stronger-than-expected showing in the Palestinians’ first parliamentary election in a decade Wednesday, and the ruling Fatah Party may have to include the Islamic militants in a coalition government, according to exit polls.The impressive results for Hamas, competing in its first election ever, reflected popular discontent with Fatah, the secular party that has led the Palestinian Authority since its creation 12 years ago and has been accused of widespread corruption and mismanagement.The election was the Palestinians’ first truly competitive vote, and officials hoped it would help cement democracy in the post-Yasser Arafat era. But it also gave unprecedented clout to Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction and is listed as a terror group by the United States and European Union.An exit poll by Bir Zeit University in Ramallah showed Fatah winning 63 seats in the 132-member parliament with 46.4 percent of the vote, and Hamas taking 58 seats with 39.5 percent. Smaller parties received 11 seats, according to the poll of 8,000 voters in 232 polling stations. The poll had a one-seat margin of error.A second survey showed Fatah beating Hamas 42 percent to 35 percent.Before the election, pollsters said the race was too close to call. Hamas made a stronger showing than the 30 percent that many pollsters expected.The polls indicated Fatah may need to include some Hamas members in its ruling coalition because some of the independents were aligned with the militants. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could face problems with Israel and the United States if he includes Hamas members in his Cabinet.President Bush told The Wall Street Journal in an interview Wednesday that the United States will not deal with Hamas until it renounces its position calling for the destruction of Israel.”A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace,” Bush said.”And so you’re getting a sense of how I’m going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is: not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you.”In Gaza City, Fatah loyalists fired rifles out of car windows, sounded their horns and waved the yellow flag of their movement as they drove around the streets after getting word of the exit polls.”Even though this is not the official result, we have to celebrate,” said 22-year-old Omar Abdel Al Raouf, waving an assault rifle from his car window. “The winner is the Palestinian people.”Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooded polling stations throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a vote that would determine how Palestinians wanted to be governed and whether they would pursue negotiations or confrontation with Israel.Long lines formed at polling stations, and 77.7 percent of 1.3 million eligible voters cast ballots. Under a compromise with Israel, some Arabs in east Jerusalem were allowed to cast absentee ballots at post offices in the disputed city, and voting was extended there by two hours because postal workers were slow.Preliminary results were expected late Wednesday or early Thursday. Complete results were expected by late Thursday. Routine power cuts in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis forced election workers to count ballots by candlelight.”Whoever is the winner, it’s a great victory for the Palestinians in general because partnership starts from this minute,” said Samer Lulu, 29, a merchant who voted in Gaza City.Hamas’ success has alarmed Israel and the West, but Abbas has argued that luring the group, which has been behind dozens of deadly attacks on Israel, into politics would tame it and increase the chances for peace. The election will usher in a new parliament and Cabinet, but Abbas, who was elected president last year, will remain head of the Palestinian Authority regardless of the results.”We are coming into a new phase. In this phase, we are calling for the international community to help us return to the negotiating table with the Israelis, conclude the peace process and implement it,” Abbas said after the voting ended.Palestinians were given the day off to vote, and the election was held in a celebratory atmosphere that was rare in the recent years of fighting with Israel. Some activists covered their cars with red carnations, as if for a wedding, and others blasted campaign songs from car stereos and storefront speakers.Campaign posters hung on nearly every wall, dangled from electric lines over the street and were plastered to the hoods of cars. Some children ran through the streets wearing the green flag of Hamas as a cape. Others wore the black-and-white checkered scarf of Fatah.Some 13,500 police officers guarded the 1,008 polling stations to prevent gunmen from disrupting the vote, and there were no reports of major violence. In the West Bank’s Balata refugee camp, militants who had threatened to burn down polling stations checked their assault rifles at the door with a flourish and peacefully voted.However, police in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis fired into the air to push back a crowd of impatient voters and a phalanx of Israeli police prevented hard-line Israeli lawmakers and extremists from forcing their way into a polling station in east Jerusalem.”I think that Palestinians should be hailed for the democracy they exercised which is unprecedented in the Arab world, and tomorrow will be a new day for Palestinian political life,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.Hamas leaders said they would not comment until official results are announced.Hoping to harness a wave of discontent with Fatah, Hamas ran an anti-corruption campaign, calling its party Reform and Change.”We’ve reached the worst. The most important thing now is change,” said Raed Abu Hamam, 35, a construction worker in Gaza’s Beach camp who said he has lost faith in Fatah.Fatah appealed for another chance to clean up the government and expand an economy shattered by nearly five years of fighting with Israel. Many Fatah voters said they were grudgingly supporting the party out of old loyalties.”The Palestinian Authority did nothing for us. People here have no jobs, while people in the PA got millions of dollars,” said Ali Taha, 35, a laborer in the Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, who voted for Fatah anyway.Though the election appeared likely to turn on internal issues, the results will have deep implications for future peace efforts with Israel.Abbas said Wednesday he is prepared to resume peace talks, even if Hamas joins his government. Hamas is expected to ask for service ministries – health, education and welfare – and to leave diplomacy to others.”We are ready to negotiate,” Abbas said. “We are partners with the Israelis. They don’t have the right to choose their partner.”Israel says it will not deal with Hamas until it disarms. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that if a solution to the conflict cannot be reached through peace talks, then Israel will take more unilateral steps like its Gaza withdrawal.”Anyone who participates in this government must renounce terrorism, must abandon the path of terrorism, must abandon incitement and the culture of hatred (and) must disarm the terrorist groups,” Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said.Former President Jimmy Carter, who led a team of foreign election monitors, told CNN that if Hamas joins the Cabinet “then the American law, the way I understand it, would preclude the United States doing business with the Palestinian Authority.”Hamas’ top candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, said the group had no intention of laying down its arms after the elections. And another candidate, Mahmoud Zahar, said his group is “not going to change a single word” in its covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.Vail, Colorado
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