RAMALLAH, West Bank — The radical Hamas movement appeared poised Wednesday to claim more than a third of the seats in the Palestinian parliament, and may even have won a majority.
On Wednesday, the Development Studies Program of Birzeit University projected a Fatah victory, with 46.4% of the vote, in its poll. Hamas appeared to garner 39.5%, according to the poll. Two other polls indicated similar results.
Early this morning, however, some officials in both parties said Hamas appeared to have won. Preliminary results will not be available at least until later today. Kadoura Fares, a senior Fatah official and parliamentary candidate, said that he believed that Hamas had won a majority. He declined to specify how he had reached that conclusion.
If the exit poll margin holds, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party will claim 63 of 132 legislative seats, and Hamas will take 58, the pollsters said. The remaining seats are likely to be scattered among a handful of leftist and independent parties that could play kingmaker roles in shaping the next government.
The showing by Hamas will change the face of Palestinian politics by giving the Islamic movement a formal place in the governmental structure for the first time since the Palestinian Authority was formed in 1994.
A government that includes Hamas, which has been responsible for numerous suicide bombings and attacks against Israelis, will present problems for negotiations with Israel, which has demanded that the party renounce violence and its vow to destroy the Jewish state.
The four partners in Mideast negotiations -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia -- issued a statement in December saying any Palestinian Cabinet "should include no member who is not committed to the principles of Israel's right to exist in peace and security and an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Wednesday said that policy still applied.
President Bush, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal before polls closed Wednesday, painted the U.S. stance in stark terms. "Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you," he told the newspaper.
Amid tight security, balloting was for the most part orderly and turnout high, officials said. About 78% of the nearly 1.4 million eligible voters took part, election officials said.
Armed groups kept their promise to maintain calm during the voting, which carried a festival-like atmosphere. Scarved women, men in baseball caps and eager schoolchildren clogged the entrances to polling places, shoving leaflets from the 11 parties into voters' hands.
Vivid campaign banners canopied many streets around the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and posters bearing candidate photographs seemed to cover every surface, from the sides of buildings to the trunks of palm trees.
The exit poll projections suggested that Fatah would need the help of smaller secular parties to keep its control of the government.
If Hamas didn't win a majority, Abbas, who would be responsible for naming a prime minister and helping to assemble the next government within five weeks, has said he would not include Hamas as long as it refused to recognize Israel. Hamas' leaders said before the election that they would await vote results before making a decision about whether to seek Cabinet positions or remain an opposition force.
Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University who was not involved in the exit poll, said that if Hamas did not win a majority of seats, it probably would opt to remain in the opposition.
"We have a polarized system. Hamas has shown a very strong showing in the election. The government is going to be a Fatah coalition, with smaller parties and independents," Jarbawi said late Wednesday. "We're going to have a very strong opposition."
The presence of the Islamic group in the Palestinian government could pose a dilemma for the Bush administration, which classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization and has refused to have dealings with it. A congressional resolution passed last month warned that U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority could be jeopardized if Hamas joined the government before renouncing violence. European Union officials made a similar threat.
For its part, Israel has said it will not negotiate with members of a movement that it defines as a terrorist group. Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction and its military wing has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks since the outbreak of hostilities in 2000.
Israel had no comment on the vote projections, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
Abbas has expressed hope that Hamas will be tempered by involvement in mainstream Palestinian politics, but he is likely to come under increased pressure from Israel and the international community to disarm the group, and other militias.