The Palestinian people are voting in their first parliamentary elections in a decade, which have been actively supported by the Swiss government.This content was published on January 25, 2006 - 11:40
Voting on Wednesday was said to be proceeding smoothly. The militant group Hamas is expected to pose a stiff challenge to the ruling Fatah Party.
The Swiss foreign ministry says it is important the Palestinian Authority receives new democratic legitimacy through the ballot box.
Speaking after casting his vote in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas praised his people for overcoming great obstacles to carry out the vote.
"We are so happy with this election festival. So far, it's going very well and we hope it will keep going well until the end without any troubles."
He said arranging permission for Palestinians to vote in disputed Jerusalem had been difficult, though the matter had been resolved with the Israelis.
The Swiss foreign ministry welcomed Israel's decision to allow the vote to go ahead in East Jerusalem.
"The foreign ministry is pleased that the Palestinian elections are taking place despite the difficult security situation. It welcomes the fact that president did not give in to internal pressure to postpone the elections," the ministry told swissinfo.
Switzerland is actively supporting the elections with two long-term and five short-term observers participating in the European Union observer mission. A further two Swiss parliamentarians are part of the Council of Europe monitoring team.
Abbas' Fatah party, tainted by corruption, has asked Palestinians for another chance to pursue an elusive peace deal, while the Islamic militant Hamas has promised clean government.
Both groups were confident of victory, but pollsters said the race was too close to call. The rival parties said they would consider a coalition if no clear victor emerges.
Abbas, who was elected a year ago, will still head the Palestinian Authority regardless of Wednesday's results, but the vote will lead to the formation of a new cabinet.
Polls opened at 7am across the West Bank and Gaza, with some 1.3 million voters eligible to choose a 132-member parliament.
Role of Hamas
Hamas boycotted the last elections in 1996. Commenting on the possibility of Hamas in the Palestinian cabinet, the Swiss foreign ministry said it would depend on their renouncing violence.
"The foreign ministry welcomes the declaration by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that Hamas members will only be accepted into the Palestinian cabinet if they recognise the Oslo Peace Accord with Israel."
"Naturally we expect the political actors to ensure that their dealings conform to the democratic process and respect international law."
Israel has said it will not deal with Hamas politicians. But in the event of a coalition, Hamas is expected to ask for service ministries, such as health and education, and to leave diplomacy to others.
Some 13,500 police officers deployed at more than 1,000 polling stations are enforcing a weapons ban throughout the day. Rival militant groups pledged to keep their guns out of sight during voting.
swissinfo with agencies
Some 1.3 million Palestinians are eligible to vote to choose the 132-member parliament.
Nearly 20,000 local observers and 950 international monitors, led by former United States president Jimmy Carter, are watching the vote.
Official results are expected to come in during the night of Wednesday to Thursday.
Swiss involvement in Israel and the Occupied Territories primarily consists of development aid for the Palestinians.
This is routed through non-governmental and other international organisations. No direct funding is given to the Palestinian Authority, apart from a subsidy to the statistical office.
A Swiss-backed peace plan unveiled two years ago - the Geneva Iniative - has so far failed to win political support on either side.
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