RAMALLAH, West Bank – A total of 46 members of the Palestinian election commission, including the top management, resigned Saturday saying they had been pressured by the campaign of Mahmoud Abbas (search) and intelligence officials to abruptly change voting procedures during the presidential election.
While the Central Election Commission (search) was meeting on voting day, Jan. 9, to consider the requested changes, shots were fired at the panel's headquarters. Electoral officials said they recognized at least one of the gunmen as a member of Palestinian intelligence.
Two senior members of the commission, Ammar Dwaik and Baha al-Bakri, resigned earlier in the day, and officials later announced the resignations of 44 more.
"These employees resigned after they heard of our resignation. This proves that what happened is very serious and it must not happen again," Dweik said.
Among those who resigned were six top election officials.
The resignations raised questions about the Jan. 9 vote that gave Abbas an overwhelming victory, though the officials who quit said the alleged irregularities did not fundamentally affect the final vote tally.
Abbas was sworn in as Palestinian Authority (search) president on Saturday.
Abbas, the Fatah candidate, won 62.3 percent of the vote.
"These pressures and threats lessoned the degree of the integrity of the election, even though overall it was free and fair," said Dwaik, the deputy chairman of the commission.
During the presidential election, polls were to have stayed open for 12 hours, until 7 p.m. However, several hours after polls opened, turnout was relatively light, a cause of concern for Abbas, who was the front-runner but needed a decisive victory to win a mandate for peace talks with Israel.
"We were visited by senior officials from Abu Mazen's campaign, and we were pressured to change procedures on election day," al-Bakri said. Abbas is widely known as Abu Mazen.
During the meeting, shots were fired at the panel's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. In the end, the commission decided to extend voting by two hours and to allow voters to cast their ballots in any location, not only in their hometowns.
The change enabled thousands of members of the security forces, most of them Abbas supporters, to cast ballots near their posts, rather than traveling to their hometowns, some of them far away.
Dwaik and al-Bakri said Saturday that those decisions were made under pressure from Abbas' campaign, Fatah and the intelligence service.
"I was personally threatened and pressured," Dwaik said. "I am therefore announcing my resignation publicly, so that everyone knows that in the upcoming legislative election, this could happen again."
Bakri said voting hours are extended only in case there are long lines at the polling stations. "This was not the case on election day," he said.
"These (changes in) procedures had two goals, first to increase the turn-out, and second, to increase the percentage of Fatah voters," al-Bakri said.