Fatah's monopoly of power over the Palestinian Authority was decisively broken last night after two exit polls showed Hamas within five seats of overtaking it in parliamentary elections.
If accurate the polls mean that the militant Islamist faction Hamas will at the least have robbed Fatah of it of its overall majority and has left it dependent on other parties perhaps including Hamas itself if it is to form a government.
The release of official results was scheduled initially for 9am (0700 GMT), but they are now due to be announced at 7pm (1700GMT), the Palestinian Central Election Commission said. It gave no reason for the delay.
The Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki indicated last night that his exit poll finding of 53 Hamas seats to 58 Fatah could in theory even give Hamas the chance to form a government and that it had won the election in Gaza.
But the outcome could still afford Fatah, as still the biggest single party if the polls are matched by actual results today, to form a minority government in coalition with independent and leftists parties, leaving Hamas as a formidable opposition within the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The turning point in the history of the Palestinian authority came after a day notable for a largely orderly election in which more than 70 per cent of the 1.3 million registered voters turned out to vote in the West Bank and Gaza.
Mahdi Hassouna, a car mechanic, was delighted. "It's excellent," he said. "We expected there to be more problems, but it has all gone very smoothly." Night had already fallen when Mr Hassouna, 40, left work to thread his way through the noisy crowd of young men in their baseball caps holding aloft the green banners of Hamas and the yellow ones of Fatah to vote at the Karmel High School in central Gaza City.
Their clamour made little impression on Mr Hassouna, who resolutely cast his ballot for the much smaller leftist party "The Alternative" that includes the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which issued a far-sighted and pioneering call for a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel as long ago as 1974. But his pleasure was patriotic rather than partisan. "I am very proud that the Palestinian people have sent a good picture, a beautiful picture to the world. Elections like this do not happen everywhere."
Mr Hassouna's pride could not, of course, disguise the momentous problems that await the outcome of yesterday's parliamentary elections, the first in a decade and the first in which the dominant Fatah has faced a real electoral threat. As he spoke, no one could predict the profound consequences of the formidable showing for Hamas, an internationally proscribed armed Islamic organisation responsible for hundreds of Israeli civilian deaths over the past five years.
On the electoral process, Mr Hassouna nevertheless had a point. Palestinians are understandably irritated, having voted in a parliament and Yasser Arafat as president 10 long and bloody years ago, at the idea that they have suddenly discovered democracy. But the almost carnival mood of enthusiasm for it yesterday reinforced by the honking horns of cars taking electors to the polls, the banners strung across the streets, and huge faction flags attached to children's bicycles was striking.
The unconfirmed turnout of 73 per cent of the 1.3 million registered voters taking part in a free and unpredictable 11-party election in the forbidding circumstances of occupation, and in an entity which is not even a state, would put many Western, let alone Arab countries, to shame.
It was not perfect, of course. There was a shooting in Khan Yunis, probably tribal in origin; there was fighting in Hebron; there were guns fired into the air at a Nablus funeral for an activist shot dead by a rival Fatah grouping; there was jostling among activists and impatient voters at several polling stations.
But for the most part, the election confounded predictions by being one in which weapons stayed, if not always out of sight, out of use. The southernmost Gaza town of Rafah is the one most ravaged by more than four years of lethal conflict and it was unsurprising that the prospects of a decisive end to it were on many of its voters' minds.
"We need to have a good peace," said Harba Suleiman, 38, who has four children, before voting for Fatah in Yibna refugee camp. "I lost my father in 1967 and I want all this to end."
Hani al-Barama, 30, a civil engineer working with a UN team recycling the mounds of rubble left by the many houses demolished by Israel including his own declared: "We ask Allah for everyone to vote well." And he said darkly: "I don't want to say how I am voting because not everyone is democratic here. Some are dictators." But he added: "I do not know how Israel will react if Hamas get more than 50 per cent. I hope they won't come back here but anything is possible."
Many voters however, knowing all too well that yesterday's election cannot itself solve the conflict, were more preoccupied by the more mundane. Nowal Kamal 50, a mother of 10 children, declared: "We want to improve our lives, have less unemployment and improve our economic situation. I am going for Hamas. They are religious, straightforward and not corrupt."
This theme of change, not least in the sclerotic and, many Palestinians believe, corrupt, PA was cited by almost every voter for Fatah as well as Hamas during a tour of Gaza polling stations.
In the northern town of Beit Hanoun, where Hamas has launched many a Qassam rocket at Israel and has run the council since January, opinions differed about its performance. Hiyat al Masri, 28, a housewife and student, said it had improved roads and was "excellent". By contrast, Awad Naim 42, an accountant supporting Fatah, said: "Nothing has changed ... and they are employing Hamas people in municipal jobs." But he was hardly less scathing about the existing Legislative Council. "It has changed nothing in 10 years," he said.
What the papers say...
How the Middle East newspapers reported the election.
"Today is a wedding day, a day for a real test for the Palestinian people... But we are afraid this democratic wedding might turn into the bride's funeral because of the parasites that have emerged in the past few years with the help of some factions and parties no longer capable of controlling them. This wedding turning into a funeral is what every Palestinian citizen wants to avoid."
"Today we see Hamas entering political life and the Palestinian parliament. Whether Israel wants to conduct negotiations with Hamas or not, the result is the same. When Ariel Sharon was elected, the Palestinians... were angry. But he is the man who withdrew from Gaza, not Shimon Peres. The things we failed to achieve will be achieved by Hamas and Kadima. Perhaps through negotiations, perhaps by war. Anyway, this is a rare historical opportunity that perhaps will not be repeated."
"The people are to gain one their most important experiences ever in practising their right to self-determination, even under the yoke of occupation. The Arab peoples will learn from the Palestinians that resisting the occupation with force is possible, that resisting it with negotiations is possible, and resisting it with democracy is feasible too."
"Palestinian voters know the ballot slip they choose today will have no influence over the Israeli occupation. But their concern about the elections shows their understanding that it is impossible to blame the occupation for all social ills, that there are internal matters... for which they are responsible."Reuse content