In the poll, more than 140,000 voters got to choose from nearly 900 candidates across the West Bank.

“This is a first step towards democracy and the establishment of our future state,” Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei said after casting his ballot in his home town of Abu Dis.

“These elections are being held in difficult conditions. But they are a reflection of the democratic voice that we have chosen to build our Palestinian state.”

With an estimated voter turn out of 90 percent, polling stations were kept open for an additional two hours.

The elections don’t cover any of the main cities in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

Ahead of next month’s presidential election, the poll has been seen as a important test of popularity between the mainstream Fatah movement and the militant Islamic group Hamas.

The vote also marks the first time Hamas has participated in the democratic process.

But Hamas is boycotting the January 9th election to find a successor to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, leaving the path clear for the official Fatah candidate and PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas.

Mr Abbas urged voters to “rise to the challenge” and turn out in force,
aware a strong showing for Hamas could undermine his claim to speak for all the Palestinian people after his likely presidential victory.

The poll came amid a row over British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan to prepare the birth of a democratic state at a London conference.

While the Palestinian leadership welcomed the prospect of a conference, it described some of Mr Blair’s comments as “unacceptable”.

“We have heard … about his wish to host a conference to groom the Palestinians to take part in the peace process,” Mr Qorei said in a statement.

“We reject these unacceptable declarations for we are already groomed and we have the necessary means and expertise to negotiate.”

Hamas also criticised the planned conference, saying its aim was “to intensify the pressure on the Palestinian Authority to undertake structural reforms for the benefit of Israel.”

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