JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 -- Palestinian voters appeared to overwhelmingly elect Mahmoud Abbas as their president in balloting Sunday that many Palestinians and international officials considered a milestone in efforts to bring democracy to the Arab world and a potential opening for reviving peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Abbas, 69, the candidate of the dominant Palestinian political party, the Fatah movement, received between 66 percent and 70 percent of the ballots cast, three private exit polls showed. Mustafa Barghouti, 50, a physician and human rights activist running as an independent candidate, was a distant second with about 20 percent of the votes, the results indicated.
A Palestinian election official records votes at a polling station in Gaza City. Sunday's balloting was the first Palestinian presidential election in nine years.
(Murad Sezer -- AP)
_____From the Mideast_____
Video: Analysis of the challenges that face Abbas as he succeeds Arafat and works for a Palestinian state.
Photo Gallery: Palestinians cast their votes.
Multimedia Feature: washingtonpost.com videographer Travis Fox chronicles the Palestinian presidential campaigns leading up to Sunday's election.
FAQ: How the Vote Works
Five other candidates, including Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a college professor who faces federal racketeering charges and is under house arrest in Virginia, each received between 1 percent and 4 percent of the votes, according to the exit surveys.
Two hours after the polls closed, Abbas declared victory, surrounded by cheering and chanting supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Palestinian Central Election Commission said official tallies would be released Monday.
Abbas told his supporters: "Difficult and complicated missions face us -- to establish a state with security and respect for our citizens, to give our prisoners freedom, to give our fugitives a dignified life and to reach our goal of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."
Sunday's balloting for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was the first such election in nine years. Abbas, a former Palestinian prime minister popularly known as Abu Mazen, will succeed Yasser Arafat, who died two months ago after leading the Palestinian people for nearly four decades.
Abbas's apparent victory was greeted by celebratory gunfire in the Gaza Strip and in Ramallah, where the Palestinian government is headquartered. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad had vowed not to participate in the vote.
International and Palestinian election monitors reported widespread confusion at polling stations in East Jerusalem, where they said Israeli officials severely limited the number of Palestinians allowed to cast ballots. The monitors said, however, that the Israeli military largely adhered to commitments to ease travel restrictions at checkpoints throughout the West Bank. No significant problems were reported in the Gaza Strip, despite concerns that Islamic militant organizations could attempt to thwart voters from reaching polling stations.
Barghouti alleged at a news conference Sunday night that monitors found voting irregularities and violations. He said there were allegations that people who were not registered were allowed to vote at some stations and that some voters, including Palestinian security forces, cast multiple ballots.
Overall, the election was marked by far fewer problems than many Palestinian organizations had predicted, although voter turnout was so low at midafternoon that the Palestinian election commission extended balloting by two hours. An hour before polls closed, Hanna Nasir, chairman of the commission, told reporters in Ramallah that 43 percent of the 1.9 million eligible voters had turned out. In scattered municipal elections last month in the West Bank, voter turnout was about 81 percent.
"The feeling here is that the situation is not going to change and that none of the candidates can change it," said Sana Amad, elections director at a polling station in the West Bank city of Nablus. Only 400 of 1,840 registered voters had shown up at the station by midafternoon. "It's very pessimistic."
As at all polling places, a sign was posted at the entrance of the station in Nablus forbidding voters to carry guns into the voting booths.
Abbas, a pragmatic politician who almost always appears in public wearing a suit and tie, faces serious challenges from within Palestinian society as well as from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Palestinian has said the militarization of the uprising that began more than four years ago was a mistake, but he must persuade militant organizations to abandon it. More than 3,000 Palestinians and about 1,000 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.
In an example of the obstacles ahead, the armed wing of Abbas's Fatah movement killed an Israeli soldier in an ambush in the West Bank on the eve of the election.