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Palestinians Vote in Municipal Elections

Palestinians went to the polls in municipal elections Thursday, the first such balloting to be held in 28 years.

All indications showed a good voter turnout in 26 communities throughout the West Bank, where nearly 1,000 candidates are competing for about 300 seats on various local councils. The last municipal vote was held back in 1976.

Thursdays balloting is seen as the run-up to the January 9 elections for a successor to Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority.

The municipal elections are also viewed as an important step toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said as much as he cast his ballot in the West Bank town of Abu Dis which is just outside Jerusalem.

Mr. Qureia also called the balloting "the start of democratic elections in our country."

Several problems were encountered including delayed opening at polling places due to the late arrival of ballots. But, there were also signs of a determined effort by the various political factions to mobilize their supporters and get them to the polls.

In the West Bank town of Jericho, activists organized private cars to form a shuttle service to get out the vote.

The balloting is the first since presidential elections in 1996 that voted in Yasser Arafat president of the Palestinian Authority.

It is seen as a test of the level of support the mainstream Fatah faction and its candidate former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas really have. Recent polls show Fatah as the most trusted faction in Palestinian politics scoring a 42 percent rating compared to just 26 percent last June. The political wing of the Islamic militant group Hamas has slipped from 22 percent to 20 percent in the same polls.

Next year, voting will likely take place in an additional 600 towns and villages, with a total of 1.2 million voters.