Campaign fever has blazed through the impoverished Gaza Strip, where Palestinians hope that this weekend's presidential election will usher in a dawn of peace and prosperity.
Streets are smothered in a gaudy array of posters and placards, bawling out the slogans and portraits of the seven candidates standing in Sunday's polls.
"I'm very excited," said 21-year-old Hussein, stapling portraits of his hero, Mahmud Abbas, to a make-shift washing line to hoist up like wet clothes across a main road in the depressed southern town of Rafah.
Up to 90 percent of the campaign paraphernalia plastered across Gaza promotes the front-runner, while his nearest rival, independent Mustafa Barghuti, and lesser mortals struggle to get a look-in.
"There's a chance that Abu Mazen (Abbas) can make things better. We've put 5,000 of these up in Rafah refugee camp," said Hussein, nodding at his posters as children patter bare-foot in the mud, watching wide-eyed.
"The extent of the destruction, martyrs and injuries in Rafah is beyond comparison and therefore the excitement here is particularly palpable," said Abbas' local campaign spokesman, Khaled al-Hajj.
"We've produced 20,000 pictures, another 10,000 paid for by institutions and private families, 200 big posters and graffiti. There is not a street without one.
"It's the first democratic, wonderful way in which we're being represented in recent times. It's special because in Arab regimes the incumbent usually wins by more than 90 percent, but here we have democracy," said Hajj.
An elections commission employee for Beit Hanun predicted turnout in the northern Gaza camp would be around 60 percent, reflecting the proportion of the electorate that registered ahead of Sunday's polls.
"People are interested, and this election is better than in 1996 (when Arafat was elected the first PA president) because the intifada has changed a lot. People now know who the good and who the bad are," he said, identifying Abbas as a good guy.
"This election is seen as a positive thing becaue after Arafat died, the situation was confused and it needs stability, particularly on the internal security front," said Zuhair Saqallah, anchorman for Palestine TV, in Gaza City.
But aside from civil servants and Fatah loyalists, some observers doubted that the ordinary rank and file would go to the polls en masse, preferring to keep warm at home rather than venture out in the cold with their many children.
"I'm going to reserve my right not to vote because I don't like any of them," said 21-year-old Hiba, in Jabalya, a Hamas stronghold just north of Gaza City. The Islamist movement has urged its supporters to boycott the polls.
"People have told me not to vote, but I honestly don't know if I will or not," said Ahmed Abu Walid, 22, warming his hands over a brazier in Jabalya.
Back in Rafah, the election weekend is proving a welcome distraction for some young men with little else to do in their free time.
"We've put posters up and drawn graffiti. God willing Abu Mazen will win. He is the only choice," said a carpenter and factory worker, saying Fatah had paid them 150 shekels (34 dollars) for working three days before the campaign.
But Hajj insisted that activists were only having their expenses covered by the party, which he said had spent 40,000 dollars on the campaign in Rafah alone, determined that Abu Mazen will win the day.
© Copyright 2005 AFP