12/23/2004, 00.00
PALESTINE

Voters go to the poll to elect local officials for the first time in 30 years

About 1,000 candidates are  running for 300 municipal seats in West Bank villages and towns. It will be the first electoral test before the January 9 presidential elections. Surveys put Fatah at 42 per cent.

Ramallah (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Palestinians today vote in local elections, something that has not happened in almost 30 years.

It is a dress rehearsal for the upcoming presidential elections to find a successor to the late Yasser Arafat and a test to see how Fatah and Hamas fare among voters.

In the West Bank about 1,000 candidates are vying for 300 seats in 26 local councils, mostly  in villages.  A similar poll in the Gaza Strip was delayed because violence prevented registration.

Long lines formed in front of polling stations for what was the first Palestinian ballot since Arafat's election as Palestinian president in 1996.

"This is a very important election because it prepares the way for the presidential election," said Firas Yaghi, head of the municipal electoral commission.

On January 9, Palestinians will choose a successor to Arafat, whose death in a Paris hospital last month has revived hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and triggered a wave of diplomatic initiatives.

Almost certain to win that election is Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), a U.S.-favoured moderate who opposes armed struggle and is expected to try and revive negotiations.

Fatah faces a tough challenge in the municipal ballot from Islamist groups standing in Palestinian elections for the first time—though still boycotting the presidential vote.

"It will be a challenge between Fatah and Hamas. It shows Palestinians are thirsty for democracy and I can assure you Fatah will win," said Hussein Sheikh, a senior Fatah leader.

Since Arafat's death,  research by  the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center shows that trust in Abu Mazen's party is nearly 42 per cent compared to 26 per cent in June. Hamas had dropped to 20 per cent from 22 per cent.

Despite the new optimism, violence has continued, especially in the occupied Gaza Strip. Four Palestinians and one Israeli were killed yesterday in separate incidents.

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