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Palestinians Prepare to Elect Successor to Yasser Arafat

Palestinians go to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president and successor to Yasser Arafat, in an election that is widely seen as a potential new opening for peace talks with Israel.

For the past two weeks the candidates have been on the campaign trail, holding rallies, making speeches and promises in an attempt to woo the nearly 1.8 million eligible voters in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Some have had more success on the campaign trail than others. Fatah party candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, more commonly known as Abu Mazen, has drawn the biggest crowds and gotten the most attention in the media. Opinion polls show the former prime minister and long-time confidante of Yasser Arafat as the front-runner in the race.

The Abu Mazen platform is a response to calls for political reform, an end to violence, return to law and order and a return to the negotiating table with Israel.

But, campaign manager, Mohammed Shtayeh warns against overly high expectations.

"Abu Mazen does not have a magic stick to change things overnight, to put the Palestinian house in order on the one hand and on the other hand, put together a strategy for negotiating with the Israelis, " said Mohammed Shtayeh.

Some say Mr. Abbas brings continuity to the job along with international support that will make negotiations with Israel more likely. But, others see him as part of the old guard.

When asked what they want from a new president and government, many Palestinian voters say they want change - security, peace, jobs, better daily lives.

And, Khaled Saifi says that is just what his candidate is offering with a clear platform.

"The message in three words - change, democracy and rule of law," said Khaled Saifi.

Mr. Saifi is campaign manager for independent candidate, Mustafa Barghouti, a well known physician and long-time human rights activist.

There are of course, five other candidates in the running, but opinion polls give none a chance of garnering many votes.

Taiseer Khaled, candidate for the Marxist, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine has emphasized the rule of law and anti-corruption in his campaign.

Bassam al-Salhi is running on the communist People's Party ticket and has emphasized the need for civil rather than armed resistance to Israeli occupation.

Independent candidates Abdelkarim Shbair and Sayyed Hussein Barakeh are both in Gaza and have been unable to travel to the West Bank to even campaign.

And, there is Abdelhalim al-Askhar, an Islamist professor who was arrested in the United States on suspicion of funneling money to terrorist groups.

Voters will have a chance to get their say on Sunday. But, in the meantime, it has been up to Ammar Dweik, the Executive Director of the Election Commission to get ready.

Mr. Dweik told VOA that ballots have been printed, polling stations prepared and more than 17,000 teachers trained to supervise the process.

"I believe we will be ready to conduct a free and fair election that meets the highest international standards," said Ammar Dweik.

There will be plenty of international monitors present to observe the vote - some 800 of them from various countries including the United States.

Israel has said it will pull its troops back from Palestinian population and voting areas prior to Sunday's election. However, Israeli security sources have also warned of possible violence by militant groups who might want to disrupt the vote.