RAMALLAH, West Bank — Mahmoud Abbas appeared headed for a resounding victory Sunday in a watershed election for Palestinian Authority president, a win that would cement his status as successor to Yasser Arafat and immediately present him with a daunting list of demands from both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide.
Abbas claimed victory after two independent Palestinian exit polls showed him with a more than 3-1 lead over his nearest competitor, physician and rights activist Mustafa Barghouti. Five other candidates drew smaller numbers of votes.
"There are difficult tasks ahead. How are we going to build a state of security and safety? How shall we solve the issue of prisoners, how to solve the issue of our fugitives?" he said, referring to those who are in Israeli jails or sought by Israeli authorities.
Abbas, 69, who became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization following Arafat's death in November, had been widely favored to win. Official voting results are expected today.
Abbas has called for a halt to violence and said he was ready to resume negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon under the so-called road map, a U.S.-backed peace plan that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of this year. His victory is likely to please Israel and the United States, which regard him as a relative moderate and the best hope for reviving Middle East peace efforts.
Others see Abbas as a transitional figure who will make way for a younger generation of leaders.
Palestinians flocked to the nearly 1,100 voting stations amid a carnival-like atmosphere. Vendors set up shop near polling places, selling juice and candy on a day off from work and school. Little girls traded sweets while their fathers smoked and sipped tiny cups of strong, black coffee, talking endlessly of the day's events.
Election officials extended balloting for two hours and opened it up to anyone with a Palestinian identification card, prompting protest from Barghouti. Authorities said they were seeking to accommodate thousands of voters in the Gaza Strip and West Bank who had trouble determining where they were supposed to cast their ballots. Some voters had difficulty reaching polling places because of Israeli checkpoints, Palestinian officials said.
Few serious problems were reported, however, as voters braved a wintry chill to take part in the first election for Palestinian Authority president since 1996. The Central Election Commission said turnout was at least 70%. Some commentators had said Abbas would need a turnout of two-thirds of the 1.8 million eligible voters to claim a broad mandate.
Hundreds of foreign observers, including former President Carter and a delegation sent by President Bush, were on hand to monitor the voting. Their reports were generally positive, and observers said Israel appeared to have made good on promises to pull back soldiers, allowing voters to get to polling places. Palestinian officials, however, said that some were impeded by checkpoints.
Confusion was rampant in East Jerusalem, where Israel designated only a handful of polling places. The vast majority of the city's 170,000 eligible Palestinian voters had to travel to outlying areas.
To prevent possible voting fraud, Palestinian elections officials employed transparent ballot boxes and daubed purple ink on voters' thumbs to ensure that no one cast more than one ballot. Barghouti's camp complained that the ink washed off easily.
Voters appeared enthusiastic to participate, despite the apparent certainty of the outcome.
"We want some kind of solution," said Hanna Khnouf, a 52-year-old mechanical contractor who cast his vote for Abbas at a Ramallah girls school.
"It's a terrible situation. We want to finish this in some way."
Since Arafat's Nov. 11 death, many Palestinians have hoped for new leaders who will clean up a corrupt government and help end more than four years of violence with Israel. Those expectations now rest with Abbas, a longtime PLO functionary who has urged an end to armed struggle.
Palestinians boasted that the election was a rare instance of democracy at work in the Arab world and marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of the movement for an independent state.
"This is the beginning of what could be a great transformation of Palestinian society. This vote is an expression of yearning to move away from our status as a tribal state of warring gangs, armed to the teeth, and toward the real process of nation building," said Eyad Sarraj, a prominent human-rights activist in the Gaza Strip.
The new president inherits a Palestinian government discredited by corruption and mismanagement and hobbled by the intifada, or uprising, now in its fifth year. The conflict has shattered the Palestinian economy and left its public fatigued.