RAMALLAH, Jan 8: Election organisers were placing ballot boxes on Saturday in schools and meeting halls across the West Bank and Gaza in the final countdown to the second ever Palestinian presidential contest.

While candidates were barred from campaigning on the eve of Sunday's long-awaited ballot, followers of the seven hopefuls were out in force on the streets trying to persuade any last-minute waverers.

"Abu Mazen! Abu Mazen!", chanted followers of the overwhelming favourite Mahmud Abbas on the streets of the Palestinian Authority's political capital Ramallah.

"It's simply because he is the best candidate," said 19-year-old mathematics student Fadi Mussa as he and dozens of other Abbas supporters gathered in Ramallah's landmark Manara Square.

Portraits of the seven candidates were plastered on almost every available bit of wall space and the windscreens of cars and taxis.

Many of the giant images of Abbas pictured the PLO chairman alongside the late Yasser Arafat - the man he is hoping to succeed at the helm of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas is expected to cast his ballot on Sunday morning in the Muqataa leadership compound where Arafat is buried. The Muqataa is one of 1,074 polling stations where members of the central elections commission delivered the plastic ballot boxes on Saturday.

Arafat, who died on November 11, spent most of the last three years of his life under virtual house arrest at the former British fort courtesy of the Israeli military.

The Israeli forces were nowhere to be seen in Ramallah on Saturday as part of an agreement under which they have pledged not to enter Palestinian population centres until at least 24 hours after the close of voting on Sunday evening.

After an Israeli soldier was shot dead on Friday in an ambush by Palestinian militants, Israel had threatened to call off the agreement.

"The people are not going to provoke any kind of incident," Fouad Diab, director of the Palestine Investment Bank.

"There may be some protests or acts by certain individuals but the security situation is not dependent on the Palestinians. It is in the hands of the Israelis."

Diab also said that he would be supporting Abbas, who is standing for the dominant Fatah faction.

"Abu Mazen is the only solution but he will have his work cut out," he said.

"Security is the priority. He must cut down the number of security services. There should be two or three - no more."

Abbas resigned as prime minister in 2003 after failing to loosen Arafat's grip on the sprawling security apparatus.

For 29-year-old Sandy Haichi, who had travelled to Ramallah to visit the grave of Arafat, the relatively peaceful nature of the campaign to date was just too good to last.

"I am pessimistic. I think there's a danger of the election being a little bit chaotic tomorrow," she said. "I am going to vote tomorrow but I don't know who for. Nothing is going to change."

But her aunt Muhdia Ibrahim had already made up her mind in which box she was going to mark her ballot paper.

"I am hoping that Abu Mazen will do something for us, that he will open up the roads, that he will bring freedom to our country," she said. -AFP

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