RAMALLAH, West Bank - Mahmoud Abbas won a landslide victory on Sunday in the election to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian president with a strong mandate to talk peace with Israel and end corruption, exit polls showed.
Waving flags and honking horns, Abbas supporters celebrated a victory with some 65 percent of the vote -- as high as any had predicted. Turnout looked healthy despite a boycott by Islamist militants opposed to Abbas's call for a truce.
But a bid to usher in a new era of Middle East diplomacy after the death of iconic leader Arafat will still be vulnerable to the militants, who fired rockets into Israel during polling in a show of force.
Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas (L) celebrates his campaign with a supporter after the close of voting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 9, 2005. Abbas, a Palestinian moderate aiming to talk peace with Israel, was on course for a landslide victory in an election for a successor to Yasser Arafat Sunday, exit polls showed. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Exit polls released after the 2 p.m. EST close of voting showed Abbas, candidate of the dominant Fatah movement with over 65 percent compared with about 20 percent for his nearest challenger, pro-democracy activist Mustafa Barghouthi.
"This means that Abu Mazen has the mandate to implement his program," said campaign manager Mohammed Shtayeh, using Abbas's nickname.
Amid bursts of celebratory gunfire in Gaza, 30-year-old Mazen Saeed said: "Now it is time for Abu Mazen to pay back the people. Those people need security, better lives and peace."
Five other presidential candidates, ranging from a Marxist ex-guerrilla to an academic under U.S. house arrest on suspicion of funneling funds to Hamas militants, trailed far behind.
An independent estimate that turnout was a healthy 65 percent also appeared to quell concerns that low participation as a result of the boycott call by Islamist militants could dent Abbas's mandate for talking peace and carrying out internal reform.
A top Hamas official said the Islamic faction would respect the choice of Palestinians, but that he thought Abbas's result was actually "very weak."
Palestinian election officials extended polling in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem by two hours because, they said, some voters were being held up by Israeli checkpoints in the territories occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.
But monitors said Israel appeared to have largely kept its promise to ease the passage of Palestinians through checkpoints.
"It has been a very good day. The moment is historic," European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said while observing voting.
Israel sees Abbas as a man to do business with, but has criticized his intention to co-opt rather than confront militants and insists on an end to militant attacks before real discussion of Palestinian statehood.
PLEDGE TO CURB GRAFT
As well as curbing violence, Abbas is under pressure at home and abroad to enact reforms to end widespread corruption and revive a Palestinian Authority whose structures crumbled during years of Arafat's chaotic rule.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to meet Abbas within days of his victory being made official. A result is likely on Monday.
After decades as a backroom technocrat in Arafat's circle, Abbas waged a populist campaign pledging to uphold his old guerrilla boss's quest for total Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands but parted from him in urging an end to violence.
Abbas caused disquiet in Israel with campaign vows to insist on Palestinian statehood in all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees to lands now inside the Jewish state.
Israel plans to withdraw 8,000 Jewish settlers from tiny Gaza this year. But it rules out ceding East Jerusalem or taking back refugees and has won U.S. assurances that it should never have to give up much larger settlements in the West Bank.
On the Israeli political front, a new government was to be sworn in on Monday. Sharon's coalition pacts with veteran peacemaker Shimon Peres's Labour Party and a religious faction were submitted to parliament on Sunday.
With new partners, Sharon will have a parliamentary majority for the first time in six months to press ahead with the removal of all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank.
"It can turn a new page for both sides. Maybe that will help to get things going," said Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Dan Williams and Cynthia Johnston in Jerusalem
© Copyright 2005 Reuters Ltd