Palestinians Vote in Municipal Elections

Palestinians (search) in the West Bank cast their ballots Thursday in the first municipal elections in 28 years, a vote described by the prime minister as the first step toward a democratic state.

Long lines of people waited for their chance to vote, in an election seen as a warm up to the Jan. 9 presidential elections to replace Yasser Arafat (search).

"This is the first step toward the establishment of the Palestinian state," said Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search), after casting his ballot in Abu Dis near Jerusalem.

Qureia said this vote would be the first in a series of elections for Palestinian and PLO bodies that would be "the start of democratic elections in our country."

In Jericho, activists gathered at one of the campaign headquarters with their cars, preparing to drive voters to the voting stations. However, most Jericho polling stations were late in opening because ballot boxes didn't arrive on time.

Nabil Abu Kattan, 48, a local farmer voting in his first municipal election, said he was not bothered by the long wait.

"It does not matter, one or two hours. I'm going to vote. I have been waiting for this for a long time," he said.

In the village of Doha near Bethlehem, long lines formed outside the stations. The elections will be the first electoral test for the ruling Fatah party in nearly a decade.

On the local level, Fatah is facing a strong challenge from the Islamic Hamas group, which has gained popularity in recent years with its network of welfare services, schools and clinics that help the vast numbers of poverty-stricken Palestinians.

But analysts said many voters would put clan and family loyalties ahead of party affiliation.

Next year, voting will likely take place in an additional 600 towns and villages, with a total of 1.2 million voters. The last municipal elections were held in 1976.

In recent weeks, the 26 communities have been plastered with election posters. The campaign ended Tuesday night, with rallies in parks and town squares. Results are expected late Thursday or early Friday.