RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinians held their first presidential election in nine years Sunday, choosing a successor to longtime leader Yasser Arafat (search) in a vote that many hoped would revitalize the Mideast peace process.
Mahmoud Abbas (search), the candidate of Arafat's ruling Fatah (search) movement, was expected to win easily. But he was struggling to capture a clear mandate to push forward with his agenda of resuming peace talks with Israel and reforming the corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians initially said polls were being kept open another two hours because of heavy turnout. Subsequently, however, officials said the polls were being kept open to encourage turnout, which was only about 30 percent of 1.8 million eligible voters by noon local time (5 a.m. EST).
The Central Election Commission decided to keep polls open until 2 p.m. EST. Results of two exit polls were to be announced shortly thereafter.
One election official said the panel came under heavy pressure from Fatah to keep polls open longer amid growing concerns that a low turnout could strengthen Abbas' challenger, Mustafa Barghouti (search), an independent.
Voting went relatively smoothly. In one incident, five gunmen burst into an election office, firing into the air and complaining that the names of their relatives had been left off registration lists. The situation was resolved peacefully.
In Jerusalem, there was some confusion over voter lists that was eventually resolved with the help of international observers, including former President Carter. Jerusalem is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both peoples claim it as their capital.
Israel said it was ready to meet with Abbas shortly after the election. Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Israel was prepared to release Palestinian prisoners if Abbas could halt Palestinian rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said he hoped Israel would release more Palestinian prisoners and added that the United States was ready to help the new Palestinian president with financial aid and assistance on reforming the government. He spoke of a new opportunity in an interview on ABC's "This Week" from Nairobi, Kenya.
Since Arafat's death, "I have noted with satisfaction that greater efforts to cooperate between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I hope that greater effort will continue and grow after the election," Powell told "This Week."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, part of a U.S. delegation, met with candidates in the West Bank.
"We're here because we have very, very high hopes for an election that can help move the peace process forward," he said.
Voters trickled into stations soon after they opened Sunday morning.
"I came because I want change. Any change," said Fathi Kamal, a 53-year-old taxi driver, who cast his vote in Ramallah before heading to work.
He declined to say which candidate he was supporting.
Abbas, the 69-year-old front-runner, was accompanied by his family while casting his ballot at the Muqata, the Palestinian headquarters building in the West Bank city of Ramallah where Arafat, who died Nov. 11 in France, was a virtual prisoner for most of the final three years of his life.
"I'm happy because I've exercised my right to vote," Abbas said. "The election is going well and that indicates that the Palestinian people are heading toward democracy."
Israel eased travel restrictions and took other measures to facilitate voting in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Hundreds of international observers from Europe, Japan and the United States were on hand.
Palestinian police officer Mohammed Juma was one of the first voters at the Jalil school in Gaza City. He turned his pistol in at the entrance before voting for Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen.
"I believe he is the only one capable of taking us to the safe side of this ocean of conflict," he said.
According to opinion polls, Abbas holds a clear lead over Barghouti and five other candidates. Analysts cautioned, however, that Abbas would need a strong showing -- perhaps up to two-thirds of the vote -- to go forward with his agenda.
Abbas has made it clear that his fundamental goal is the same as Arafat's: ending Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as its capital. He also hopes to reform his government.
But he faces a difficult balancing act and is likely to encounter resistance from within the corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority and militants intent on attacking Israel.
Abbas also is under heavy pressure from Israel to crack down on the militants.
"After the elections, we want to see ... a strategic decision to fight the terror and incitement," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio. "The elections are only the first step in the required direction."
Abbas so far has resisted calls for a crackdown. Instead, he hopes to persuade militants to halt their attacks on Israel. Part of that task will involve dealing with the Islamic group Hamas, which boycotted Sunday's election and which opposes the Jewish state's existence.
Zakariye Zubeydi, a senior gunman from a refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin, showed up with 15 armed militants from the pro-Fatah Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades to vote at a school.
"I voted for Abu Mazen," he declared.
An Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners -- a top priority for Abbas -- would give the pragmatic, moderate politician a boost in his dealings with militants.
Israel holds an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners. It released 159 prisoners last month, but Palestinians dismissed the gesture as insufficient.
The Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to say how many prisoners might be released after the vote. They said progress would depend on Abbas' ability to stop Palestinian militants firing mortars and Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip.
One official stopped short of demanding a total halt in attacks, instead speaking of "100 percent effort " and "specific steps which are within his ability to implement."
Palestinian refugees in crowded camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon could not vote, and there was anger and frustration at being left out, but also some hope.
"These elections are in the interest of every Palestinian," Ahmad abu-Risheh, 55, a supermarket owner originally from Hebron, said as he watched the elections on satellite television from Hussein Camp in the Jordanian capital.
"I hope that after the Palestinian elections, there will be a positive change."