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Palestinians Look Toward Coming Elections With Great Expectations

With less than a week to go, the Palestinian presidential election campaign is in full swing. Candidates are taking their messages to the voters directly through speeches, radio and TV and through placards and billboards.

Downtown Ramallah has been transformed - pictures of presidential candidates are everywhere - on walls, in shop windows and strung above the streets. Many of the pictures of suicide bombers or those young Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers have been plastered over with campaign posters.

A campaign fever has gripped this town. All those encountered on this afternoon said "yes" they would definitely go to vote.

Seven candidates are running to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian president. This time no one expects the landslide of the Arafat victory in 1996. This time it is more of a contest although long-time Arafat confidante Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is the clear front-runner. His most serious rival is physician and human rights activist, Mustafa Barghouti.

A young engineering student from Nablus, who gives his name as Aisa says he'll vote for Abu Mazen for continuity. "I favor Abu Mazen," he said. "He will follow the path of Yasser Arafat, but he also has international support."

Another young student - Osama from the West Bank town of Tulkarem favors rival candidate, Mustafa Barghouti. "Mustafa - he is well organized, a man of principle and with experience. "

Voters here confirm what opinion polls have shown - Palestinians want political reform and a better quality of life. But, they also want an independent state and foremost, they want the Israeli occupation to end, but seem ready to achieve that through negotiations, not at the point of a gun.

Whoever wins next Sunday's election faces a difficult task and high expectations.

"The first important thing for me is the security, then the investment and economic issues and the political issues related to Israel," said Hadil Kheneti, an administrative assistant in a private business in Ramallah.

Ahmed Qassem, an independent political affairs analyst says improving people's daily lives is directly linked to Israel.

"We suffer too much to implement our dreams, to build our country, to increase our standard of living. All these problems which we face daily it is connected to the Israeli occupation," said Mr. Qassem. "If I want to go to my office, I want to go to my school, I want to go to hospital, I will face obstacles from the Israeli side. They forbid me to go easily to my work, my family, into my field or farm, to any place."

Aisa, the young student from Nablus agrees and hopes the elections can bring peace and peace can bring better times. "The checkpoints should be opened so people can move and work freely," he said. "When there are elections and if there is peace the roads will be open and new opportunities will open also."

Palestinians have high hopes that the new government elected on Sunday will bring about positive change. Each wants to see his favorite candidate win but, Osama, who has come here from Tulkarem, says he is ready to accept the outcome no matter who gets elected.

"The most important thing is that people choose democratically. It is not the political elite who are leading the people. The people will lead themselves by voting," he said. "And neither America nor Israel can interfere in our affairs by pushing us into something we don't want. This is democracy."

Osama says he will vote for Mustafa Barghouti. But, if Mahmoud Abbas wins - he shrugs and says, "well, then that will be the majority decision."