RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinians launched a voter registration drive Saturday, a first step toward long-overdue elections, and Yasser Arafat (search) promised that voting for parliament and president would take place this winter.
Arafat was one of the first of some 1.8 million eligible voters to register, presenting his passport at a polling station in his headquarters in the West Bank (search) city of Ramallah. The Palestinian leader, confined to the compound by Israel for more than two years, gave the building as his address.
The last Palestinian general elections were in January 1996. Arafat has stood in the way of elections since then, arguing voting could not take place with Israeli soldiers occupying West Bank towns and cities.
Critics say Arafat is trying to avoid elections at a time when his popularity is sinking amid widespread frustration over government corruption and his handling of the conflict with Israel.
Legislator Hanan Ashrawi (search) said Saturday that Arafat now appears committed to a vote. "We just need to work out the practical steps, including legislation," she said. "It is safe to say that the political will is there."
Ali Jarbawi, head of the Palestinian Election Commission, said the registration drive would take five weeks, with a possible extension of two weeks. Once registration is completed, the law requires a three-month waiting period before elections for parliament and president of the Palestinian Authority can be held.
It is up to Arafat to set the final date. Jarbawi said that everything is in place, and that elections could be held as early as spring.
A first round of local elections will be held in 36 municipalities, including the town of Jericho, on Dec. 9. The remaining municipal elections will be held in three stages, ending Dec. 4, 2005.
Arafat said Saturday that he would announce a date for general elections "immediately" after the first round of municipal voting in December.
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said elections would be meaningless without real Palestinian government reform, including of the security services.
"If as a result of elections, especially the local ones, we are going to see new candidates, not Arafat's stooges, who will move in the direction of reform, maybe it is a small step in the right direction," he said.
The 1996 elections were the product of interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals that set up the Palestinian Authority and led to an Israeli withdrawal from two-thirds of Gaza and West Bank towns and cities.
At the time, the Islamic militant group Hamas boycotted the vote because of its opposition to the interim peace deals. However, the group — the most powerful political opposition to Arafat — now hints it is ready to participate.
Hamas has registered as an observer at the polling stations, a step that leaves open the option of the group's participation in local and general elections. Hamas, which provides social services, including health and child care, is expected to do especially well in local elections.
Jarbawi said more than 1,000 registration centers opened Saturday across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The registration was preceded by a media campaign, including ads in newspapers and local TV and radio stations.
However, turnout was light Saturday morning. In east Jerusalem, several stations remained deserted several hours after opening.
In Ramallah, 14 voters had registered by noon at the Jordan Elementary School. One of the first was Ghassan Abbas, who owns a grocery nearby.
"I decided to come because I feel that our nation is in need of a big change," he said. "Ministers and lawmakers and most of the Palestinian officials are very corrupt."