RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ This month's Palestinian election may be historic, but it's not above ridicule.

A play that premiered Tuesday satirizes candidates' empty promises and bombast _ but takes it easy on PLO chief Yasser Arafat, who is heavily favored to be elected Palestinian leader Jan. 20.

With acidity rare in Arab theater, which has often been rendered timid by dictatorial regimes, ``Democratic by Force'' lampoons a clan leader named Abu Safwan, who is vying for a seat on the 88-member national council being elected as part of the Israel-PLO autonomy accords.

The mustachioed candidate, wearing an Arab headdress, is assisted by a collection of thugs and an opportunistic campaign manager whose strategy includes bribes for officials, parties for potential voters and reckless defamation of opponents.

The standing-room audience of 600 at opening night at the Feraj Theater in Ramallah roared with approving recognition as Abu Safwan periodically interrupted the proceedings with impromptu speeches.

``A car and a manager's job for every city resident!'' he bellows. ``A sheep and a cow for every villager!''

``I'm not sure candidates will like this play!'' remarked housewife Iman Daoud, who said she was at a theater for the first time in almost a decade. ``It harms their image.''

But actress Samira Natur said the play was hardly an exaggeration, noting real-life candidates have been showing up uninvited at weddings and promising to dig oil wells and distribute free home insurance if elected.

``Suddenly they have been turned into social reformers,'' laughed Natur, 35, who returned to the West Bank last summer after seven years in Germany.

Playwright Mahmoud Shquair, who is himself running for a council seat on behalf of the tiny People's Party, said there are no formal restrictions on what he could write.

``So far, there is no law forcing us to submit a text,'' said Shquair, who recently returned to the West Bank after being expelled by Israel two decades ago for nationalist activities.

But Zuhair Nubani, who plays Abu Safwan, noted there are unspoken taboos.

``We cannot touch the president,'' he said, referring to Arafat.

``The theater is very costly. ... It is enough for us to deal with our daily problems'' without provoking the government, added Nubani, a Jordanian-born Palestinian who recently moved to the West Bank.

Arafat has been criticized for trying to muzzle the Palestinian media and manipulate the election results in favor of his Fatah party. Palestinian TV has restricted appearances by candidates whose criticism has been too harsh, and ``mudslinging'' among candidates has been banned.

Human rights activist Bassem Eid, who has investigated torture in Palestinian jails, was briefly arrested last week by Arafat's police. Newspaper editor Maher Alami was detained for five days for refusing to publish on his front page a story lauding Arafat.

Critics say such actions bode ill for Palestinians' hopes to create the first true Arab democracy.

Some audience members on Tuesday also bristled with indignation when the play itself seemed to turn preachy, suggesting they should vote for candidates who did time in Israeli jails during the 1987-93 uprising against Israel's rule.

Najeh Abu Shamsiya, who plays one of Abu Safwan's henchmen, said such politicization was inevitable.

``Propaganda or not, (the play) is real. ... It is a mirror of our society,'' he said.