RAMALLAH, West Bank – Mahmoud Abbas (search) declared victory in Palestinian presidential elections on Sunday after exit polls showed him winning by a wide margin, giving him a decisive mandate to renew peace talks with Israel, rein in militants and try to end more than four years of Mideast bloodshed.
The victory of the staid and pragmatic Abbas, who opposes violence and has the backing of the international community, was expected to usher in a new era, after four decades of chaotic and corruption-riddled rule by Yasser Arafat (search) who died Nov. 11.
"There is a difficult mission ahead to build our state, to achieve security for our people ... to give our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state," Abbas said in an acceptance speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah (search).
"I present this victory to the soul of Yasser Arafat and present it to our people and to our martyrs," Abbas said, referring to Palestinians killed in the conflict with Israel.
Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, has promised to reform the Palestinian Authority, overhaul the unwieldy Palestinian security services and quickly resume negotiations with Israel, stalled for four years.
"We, the Palestinians, are drawing our future with our own hands. We will be the symbol of democracy and freedom," said Aya Abdel Kader, 45, a lawyer voting at a Gaza City school.
President Bush, who has said a resumption of peace talks must be accompanied by sweeping Palestinian reforms, called Abbas' election "a historic day for the Palestinian people."
"Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza took a key step toward building a democratic future by choosing a new president in elections that observers describe as largely free and fair," Bush said in a statement issued two hours after polls closed.
Abbas' political objectives are the same as Arafat's: a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and a solution for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
After results of three exit polls were announced — giving Abbas up to 70 percent support — his supporters celebrated in the streets. In the West Bank city of Hebron, motorists honked horns and waved Abbas posters. In Ramallah, gunmen fired in the air.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expects to meet with Abbas soon, his aides said. Israeli officials said that in a gesture to Abbas, Israel plans to release some of the more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, provided Abbas stop militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns.
"I think this vote shows a change in the Palestinian street" moving away from support of violence, said Sharon aide Raanan Gissin.
"We certainly welcome this and hope that from this mandate Abu Mazen will lead the Palestinian people on the path of reconciliation," he added.
Bush also said the United States will help Abbas and the Palestinian people address the challenges and help create two states, Israel and Palestine, side by side in peace. He said other countries, including Israel, must do their part.
Polls were open for 14 hours, two more than originally planned after the Central Election Commission extended voting until 9 p.m., citing logistical problems. One election official said the decision came amid heavy pressure from Fatah, which was concerned a low turnout could weaken Abbas.
At least 66 percent of 1.1 million registered voters cast ballots, election officials said, adding the figure was expected to rise, since unregistered voters also participated in the election. Final results were to be announced Monday morning.
Two of the exit polls gave Abbas at least 66 percent of the vote and a third gave him as much as 70 percent, while Abbas' main challenger, independent Mustafa Barghouti had between 20 and 25 percent. The remaining five candidates scored in the low single digits. The polls had a margin of error of between three and five percentage points.
The election, the first presidential vote in nine years, proceeded largely without interruption. In one incident, gunmen fired in the air in an election office and in Jerusalem, voters complained of confusing arrangements.
Barghouti complained that the Central Election Commission had changed rules in mid-game, by extending voting by two hours and by allowing voters to cast ballots at any location, rather than where they lived or registered.
Analysts have said Abbas needs at least 60 percent support to resume negotiations with Israel. "He (Abbas) has a mandate from the voters," pollster Khalil Shekaki said of the exit polls.
However, Abbas faces a lengthy list of challenges. He must balance between Israel's demand to crack down on militants and his efforts to co-opt the gunmen. A major attack on Israel could undermine his credibility and sour peace hopes.
Major militant groups have indicated they are willing to halt attacks and give him a chance. However, the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which funds some of the Palestinian militants, is trying to undercut Abbas, according to people close to the group.
Earlier this week, Hezbollah-funded gunmen with ties to Abbas' ruling Fatah movement killed an Israeli soldier in a West Bank ambush. On Sunday, Hezbollah carried out a deadly cross-border attack. An Israeli soldier, a French U.N. observer and a Hezbollah fighter were killed in the confrontation.
The Palestinian election came a day before Israel's parliament was to approve a new, more moderate coalition, seen as a boost for a planned Gaza withdrawal. In the new alliance, Sharon will govern with elder statesman Shimon Peres, leader of the moderate Labor Party, and an architect of interim peace deals with the Palestinians. Sharon has talked of restarting the long-stalled "road map" peace plan and coordinating his Gaza plan with Abbas.
The Israeli army eased travel restrictions for the vote, witnessed by hundreds of foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and former French Premier Michel Rocard.
Many gunmen followed rules barring weapons in voting stations, but in a sign of the difficulty the new president will face in controlling them, Zakariye Zubeidi, a militant leader, refused to give up his M-16 assault rifle when he walked into a polling station in the West Bank town of Jenin.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians and international observers complained of confusion over registration lists, and Palestinians accused Israel of trying to intimidate them.
By prior agreement with Israel, only about 5,000 of 120,000 eligible voters in Jerusalem — a city both sides claim as their capital — were permitted to vote in post offices in the city. The others had to vote in suburbs.
Backed by Fatah's formidable machine, Abbas was nearly assured of victory well before the vote when his toughest competition, jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, pulled out and the largest opposition group, Hamas, declared a boycott.
Regardless, many saw the vote, which Arafat had repeatedly delayed, as a hopeful sign the Palestinians were building a democratic foundation. Palestinian leaders have already scheduled a parliamentary election for July 17.
Many Palestinian refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza complained they could not vote for the person who would represent them in peace talks. The refugee issue has been a key sticking point in past peace talks, with Palestinians demanding they be allowed to return to the homes inside Israel that they fled or were driven from during the 1948 Middle East War.
Israel says it will not allow them to return, frightened their numbers would overwhelm the country and damage its Jewish character.
But eligible voters cast their ballots with great hope. "The election is our weapon to change our lives," said Souad Radwan, a 46-year-old teacher in Gaza's Jebaliya refugee camp, whose house was demolished during a recent Israeli raid into the camp. "We are sick of the occupation and this troubled life."