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Exit poll: Militant Hamas slashes Fatah majority

Nearly 80 percent of voters are thought to have cast ballots

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Mahmoud Abbas
Hamas
Israel

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian voters loosened the dominant Fatah movement's hold in their first election in a decade, but the ruling party remains No. 1, according to an exit poll late Wednesday.

The militant Islamic group Hamas is projected to snare about 40 percent of the parliamentary posts and to block Fatah from gaining a majority in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council.

Fatah had been the uncontested leader of Palestinian politics since 1996, when Hamas boycotted elections, allowing Fatah and a handful of independents to virtually sweep the polls.

Dissatisfaction with Fatah and other factors spurred voters to cast 39.8 percent of their ballots for Hamas candidates and 46.4 percent for the ruling party, according to an exit poll from Bir Zeit University, a respected Palestinian school. (Watch how preliminary results divide up seats -- 3:05)

That projection would give Hamas 58 seats, only five shy of Fatah's tally, in the 132-seat legislature. Official election results are expected Thursday.

Fatah was formed in 1965 by longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004. For decades, it dominated Palestinian politics.

Hamas is a militant Islamic group that has called for the destruction of Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. State Department -- raising questions about the future of peace talks.

Hamas is thought to have capitalized on perceived corruption within the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, as well as what is seen as the authority's inability to manage the affairs of the Palestinians.

"Today was a great day for Palestine," said Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative, a democratic opposition movement. "Mostly, they were voting for opposition and voting against Fatah -- against corruption, against nepotism, against the failure of the peace process, and against the lack of leadership." (Watch Gaza residents talk about why election day is so important -- 2:32)

He went on to describe the election as "the best democratic practice ever in the Arab world."

Election officials estimated that about 77.7 percent of the eligible 1.3 million voters turned out to cast their ballots at more than 1,000 polling stations.

Voting closed at 7 p.m. local time in Gaza and the West Bank, and polling sites in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem had to remain open two extra hours to accommodate voters.

Among the voters were Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. Militant Palestinian groups had agreed to a cease-fire during the voting, and there were no reports of large-scale violence Wednesday.

"We are embarking on a new era, and we call on the international community to help us return to the negotiating table with the Israelis, to conclude a peace agreement and implement it," Abbas said at the end of the election.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa told CNN, "It's a happy day. There is no doubt about that. And I think that the Palestinian people are generally happy because of this."

Election adviser Jarrett Blanc was pleased with the way the election was carried out, saying the Central Election Commission "met or exceeded" all the standards that were laid out for the vote.

He was quick to caution against placing too much emphasis on the exit polls because officials are using a complicated formula that has not been well-tested.

"I would really urge people who are interested in the results to wait for the official results, which will hopefully come out tomorrow," he said.

Eleven parties were taking part in the election, but all eyes were on the battle for seats between Fatah and Hamas. (Read how the vote demonstrates Palestinians' will to flex their political muscle)

At polling sites in Gaza, many voters jubilantly waved the green flag of Hamas.

"Fatah hasn't done anything for us, for our children," said one Hamas voter at a polling site in Gaza.

Another said, "Fatah only helps itself. We want to see what Hamas can do for us."

The results of the election were being closely monitored by the United States and the European Union, both of which have threatened to cut aid if Hamas becomes part of the government.

"We view Hamas as a terrorist organization. We don't deal with Hamas. And under the current circumstances, I don't see that changing," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan was more cautious, saying, "We'll see what the election results are. I'm not going to play a what-if scenario here."

Asked how Palestinians could move forward with peacemaking with Israel, al-Kidwa said, "We have to maintain making peace with Israel as a priority. Actually, this is in our interest, in the interests of the Palestinian people. We need to reach final settlement with Israelis."

Zahar said his goals include reconstructing areas that have been destroyed by years of Israeli occupation and corruption, and rebuilding the Palestinian infrastructure.

He said he would be open to negotiations with Israel, but only if the Israelis enter into talks with respect for Palestinian rights. Past talks have "ended with nothing," he said.

"We are not going to meet them just for meeting," Zahar said after casting his ballot. (Watch Hamas attempt to redefine its image -- 2:51)

But any negotiations would undoubtedly be strained by Hamas' stance on Israel: Asked if his group would ever recognize the nation, Zahar replied, "Never."

On the eve of the voting, acting Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert told Palestinians: "Do not choose extremists who have led them from tragedy to tragedy and to misery."

He said the elections were an opportunity for Palestinians to have an "independent Palestinian state in their own territory," but the prime minister added that would happen only by Palestinians "relinquishing some of their national dreams, just as we have relinquished some of our national dreams."

CNN's John Vause and Guy Raz contributed to this report.

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