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Election brings hope of change

Never mind that the winner appears a foregone conclusion or that the blink-of-an-eye campaign included not a single direct debate among candidates. As Palestinians head to the polls today to choose a president, they are flush with the sense of democracy in the making, if tempered in their hopes that the historic vote will significantly improve their lives.

"We are enthusiastic about the election because we hope there might be change," said Amal Shkeir, 30, a villager from the West Bank who was in Ramallah for medical tests on a recent afternoon.

Her husband, Yusef, used to be a construction worker in Israel, but that job ended with the grinding conflict with Israel, now in its fifth year. Now he snares sporadic work in the West Bank but said the family's fortunes have fallen to "zero."

But both said the election had raised their aspirations. "We are not alone in being excited about the election," Amal said. "Everybody is."

The interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is widely favored to defeat six other candidates in the first presidential vote since Yasser Arafat, who died in November, prevailed over token opposition in 1996. The balloting comes amid a whirl of electoral activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: During coming months, municipal elections will resume in hundreds of cities, towns and villages, and a separate campaign for the Palestinian parliament is planned for spring.

Polls suggest that Palestinians are generally satisfied with how the presidential election is being conducted and expectant that the post-Arafat period will yield changes.

"They are searching for peace," said Ayoub Mustafa, a researcher at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. "People here think that maybe the election will change what happens on the ground."

Yet amid the lofty talk of historic turning points and evolving democracy, ordinary Palestinians exhausted by the violence also voice a weary-sounding refrain. They say their hopes for change are clouded by doubts that Abbas or any other candidate can reach peace with Israel and dramatically improve their lives any time soon.

It would be enough, they said, if the new president succeeded in persuading the Israelis to ease travel restrictions and military raids in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which Israel plans to evacuate this year. Some voters are trying not to expect too much from the election.

"Maybe it's going to change all of our lives. Maybe it will take off the occupation. Maybe we will have a country. Nobody knows," said Ahmed Mansour, 23, who said he plans to vote for Abbas. "Maybe it will be better. Maybe it will be worse."

Mansour said Israeli road closures and checkpoints have stretched a 6-mile trip to his job in a Ramallah shopping center into a 21-mile journey that can take hours.

Israel says its checkpoints and sporadic incursions are needed to avert more suicide bombers and other armed attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Israel proper. Israeli leaders say it is up to the new Palestinian leadership to rein in armed groups and anti-Israeli incitement if the two sides are ever to revive efforts at reconciliation.

Manuel Hassassian, a political science professor at Bethlehem University, said the winner does not need a landslide. "Even if he wins by 51 percent, he's in power and we have to support him," he said.

Hassassian said it is unfair to apply the usual yardsticks of Western-style democracy to this election. More important than who wins or by how much, he said, is that the vote fosters democratic institutions, from political parties to advocacy groups, and a sense among Palestinians of their rights and civic responsibilities.

"This is an interim period. We shouldn't be measured by, is this democracy? It is democracy in the making," Hassassian said. "Elections are only a tool. Democracy is a process."