RAMALLAH, West Bank – Islamic Hamas militants fared better than originally expected in landmark Palestinian elections yesterday, and the ruling Fatah Party, though slightly ahead, might be forced to invite them into a coalition government and put Mideast peacemaking at risk, according to exit polls.

Jess Cox
Supporters of the Palestinian ruling Fatah movement wave national and party flags in Gaza city yesterday. The ruling Fatah Party took 46.4 percent of the vote in Palestinian parliamentary elections on Wednesday, with the Islamic militant Hamas winning 39

Fatah had said before the first parliamentary contest in a decade that it would rather team with small parties than join forces with Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction and whose presence in the government would be liable to cause friction with Israel, the U.S. and Europe.

But with the militants making a strong showing in their first legislative run, Fatah would need the backing of an array of smaller parties to cobble together a government. Because some of the smaller parties have ties with Hamas, Fatah might not be able to court enough of them to form a coalition strong enough to survive the Palestinians’ domestic challenges – and face Israel again at the negotiating table.

An exit poll by Bir Zeit University in Ramallah showed Fatah winning 63 seats in the 132-member parliament with 46.4 percent of the vote and Hamas taking 58 seats with 39.5 percent. Smaller parties received 11 seats, according to the poll of 8,000 voters in 232 polling stations. The poll had a one-seat margin of error.

A second survey showed Fatah beating Hamas 42 percent to 35 percent, or 58 seats to 53. Official results are due tomorrow.

“Neither Fatah or Hamas can form the Cabinet on its own, so they need to get into a coalition with other factions or with each other,” said pollster Khalil Shikaki, who carried out the second survey.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority negotiator who won re-election to parliament in his West Bank home town of Jericho, indicated that options were open.

“It’s premature to speak now about the shape and form of the Cabinet,” he told The Associated Press, “but I can tell you that this will be the beginning of a new Palestinian political life, a new horizon.”

The election was the Palestinians’ first truly competitive vote, and officials hoped it would help cement democracy in the post-Yasser Arafat era. But it also gave unprecedented clout to Hamas, which carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israel and is listed as a terror group by the United States and European Union.

The strong showing by Hamas reflected popular discontent with Fatah over corruption, mismanagement and increasing lawlessness.

After voting ended, President Bush said Washington would not deal with Hamas unless it renounced violence against Israel. “Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The election will usher in a new parliament and Cabinet, but Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected president last year, will remain head of the Palestinian Authority regardless of the results.

In Gaza City, Fatah loyalists fired rifles out of car windows, sounded their horns and waved the yellow flag of their movement as they drove around the streets after getting word of the exit polls.

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