Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation was on course last night for a landslide presidential election victory, fuelling hopes that his presidency will mark the beginning of the end of more than four years of armed conflict.
Exit polls indicated that Palestinians had ushered in the new post-Arafat era by electing Mr Abbas as their new president by a majority of more than 65 per cent - more than 45 points ahead of his nearest rival, the academic and human rights activist Mustafa Barghouti.
The size of the victory appeared to give Mr Abbas - at least in the short term - the mandate he needs to pursue his stated goals of securing a ceasefire from the armed factions, reforming the corruption-tainted Palestinian Authority and seeking negotiations with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Turnout stood at about 65 per cent, although early figures suggested voting at the beginning of the day had been slower than the dominant Fatah faction had hoped. For their candidate, Mr Abbas, the size of his victory was towards the upper end of their expectations.
According to one exit poll conducted by the respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, Mr Abbas secured 66.3 per cent compared with 19.7 percent for Mr Barghouti, the expected runner-up among the six defeated candidates in what is the first national election since Mr Arafat became the first president in 1996. A second exit poll put Mr Abbas's majority as high as 70 per cent.
While Mr Sharon's office made it clear he would be meeting Mr Abbas, there were clear signs of the immediate pressure Mr Abbas will come under after succeeding the man Mr Sharon's government has said was the main obstacle to peace. As voting got under way, among the 1.8 million voters eligible to vote at 3,000 polling stations across Gaza and the West Bank, Sylvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister declared: "Starting from tomorrow, the new Palestinian leadership will be able to do what it is required to do. I think that the leader who is elected will have to wage a genuine struggle against terror immediately and carry out reforms [in the PA]."
The elections largely took place without being disrupted by security incidents. The polls were ordered to stay open an extra two hours after complaints that voters - particularly in East Jerusalem - had been turned away from polling stations because their names were not on registers. Early in the day while may East Jerusalemites voted briskly at the Israeli post office in the city's main Arab commercial and shopping thoroughfare, dozens of others were turned away and told to vote in outlying districts because their names had not been registered.
But former US president Jimmy Carter, a leader of the 800 international monitors here for the election, who helped to broker a solution in East Jerusalem, said that Israel appeared to be keeping to its promise to ease the passage of Palestinians at military checkpoints. Mr Carter told reporters after visiting checkpoints near Jerusalem "There is no [Israeli] intimidation I have seen."
Colin Powell the outgoing US Secretary of State praised the vote "as a moment of opportunity for both sides" and the defeated US presidential candidate John Kerry, who met candidates in the occupied West Bank, said "We're here because we have very, very high hopes for an election that can help move the peace process forward."
The comments echoed hopes in Washington that a combination of the election of Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon's unilateral plan to pull out the 7,500 settlers from Gaza provides an auspicious opportunity for a resumption of a peace process between the two sides.
Nevertheless, Mr Abbas will come under strong Israeli and international pressure to fulfil tightly drawn requirements in the internationally agreed road-map to peace and reform and not only to militant attacks but "incitement" against Israel in the media and education curriculum.
Mr Abbas - who is to attend a conference in London in March to bolster reform plans and channel fresh funding of up to $8bn partly to help regenerate Gaza - appears keen to try and fulfil obligations in the road-map in the hope that Israel will fulfil its conditions.
Israel's conditions include a freeze on settlement building.
Mr Abbas, accompanied by his family, voted at Mr Arafat's former headquarters in Ramallah. "The election is going well and that indicates that the Palestinian people are heading toward democracy," he said.
The major military incident of the day occurred when the Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbollah carried out a border attack. An Israeli Army officer and a Hizbollah fighter were killed in the incident.Reuse content