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Unprecedented Competition Marks Palestinian Legislative Elections

Polls have closed across Gaza and the occupied West Bank and the vote count has begun, after landmark Palestinian elections. Indications are the militant Islamic group Hamas looks set to gain a major share, right behind the mainstream Fatah faction.

Candidates from across the political spectrum are vying for seats in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council.

Election officials say over 70 percent of the more than one million eligible voters turned out despite rain and cold winds to cast their ballots at more than 1,000 polling stations.

Palestinian journalist Khalil Assali tells VOA from Ramallah that he witnessed a strong sense of excitement among voters.

"People, they just want to go to and vote. It seems that for them, this is something they have to be a part of. So, it is as a lot of Palestinians keep saying that today [Wednesday] is a Palestinian wedding party, meaning that everybody is celebrating, everybody is there. This is really what I've seen," he said.

A strong Hamas showing would indicate the group's call for change and reform clearly resonated with many voters, who were disappointed with the long-time rule of Fatah - a party tainted by allegations of mismanagement and widespread corruption.

This election was marked by unprecedented competition and whatever the final results, Fatah's monopoly on power has been broken and Hamas is entering the political arena as a force to be reckoned with.

While many Palestinians say Hamas's participation in the political process is a good sign for democracy, others fear that the Islamic group could try to impose its fundamentalist views on the entire population.

The election is also being watched closely in Israel and the United States, both of whom consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

Israel says it will not negotiate with Hamas.

In Washington, the Bush administration welcomed Wednesday's elections, but reaffirmed it would not deal with the radical Islamic group Hamas.