RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinians voted for local councils in dozens of West Bank towns Saturday, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement didn't get the sweeping endorsement they hoped for — even as archrival Hamas boycotted the vote.
Turnout was just under 55 percent, reflecting voter apathy, and in several key towns, Fatah renegades won more council seats than candidates endorsed by Abbas' party, election officials said.
The toxic rivalry between Fatah and the Islamic militant Hamas also loomed large over the first Palestinian ballot in six years. The political rift, which broke open after Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, made it unlikely Saturday's vote will be followed anytime soon by overdue elections for parliament and president.
Hamas prevented voting in the Gaza Strip and boycotted the contest in the West Bank, arguing that elections can only be held once Hamas and Fatah reconcile. "We ask to stop this disgrace," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, dismissing Saturday's vote as meaningless.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide, countered that "Hamas cannot have a veto on democracy." Critics say the group banned voting in Gaza to prevent largely vanquished rivals, particularly from Fatah, from gaining a new foothold there.
The election was held at a time when Abbas' Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government in parts of the Israeli-controlled West Bank, is facing a slew of difficulties.
It is mired in a chronic cash crisis and has struggled to cover the government payroll. Efforts to heal the Palestinian political split have failed. And prospects are virtually nil for resuming meaningful talks with Israel on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in 1967.
"Fatah has been suffering two big crises, the failure of the peace process and the failure of the government to provide salaries and proper services," said analyst Bassem Zbaidi. "It resorted to the elections to get legitimacy, but the movement did not do well in the elections."
Some 505,000 voters were eligible to choose new councils in 93 towns and villages in the West Bank, picking from lists of candidates rather than individuals. In an additional 179 communities, residents reached power-sharing deals, many brokered by clan leaders, and decided to forgo elections.
In another 82 villages, there were no candidates, said election official Fareed Tomallah.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and closed 12 hours later.
With nearly all of the votes counted, the official Fatah list won 10 out of 15 seats in the West Bank's largest city, Hebron, election officials said. However, Fatah renegades did better than the movement's official candidates in the cities of Nablus and Ramallah, as well as the town of Jenin, the officials said.
Fatah, once the dominant Palestinian movement, has been plagued by infighting for years, and it was not unusual for those who failed to get on Fatah's official lists to compete against their party colleagues.
While Saturday's vote to some extent measures the standing of Fatah, clan loyalties also play a major role in local elections.
Some Palestinians said there was no point in voting. "People are crushed by heavy burdens," said Mohammed Nasser, a 25-year-old accountant in the city of Ramallah. "Would these elections solve our problems? Of course not."
Local council elections were last held in the West Bank and Gaza in several stages in 2004 and 2005, and Hamas won control of a number of main cities at the time. This was followed by presidential elections in January 2005, with Abbas chosen to replace Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who had died two months earlier. In January 2006, Hamas defeated Fatah by a large margin in parliamentary elections.
After the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, the political rift became insurmountable. The rivals set up separate governments in the West Bank and Gaza, which are to make up the bulk of a Palestinian state, and failed to agree on terms for holding new elections.
Elected politicians in both camps have been losing support because they have overstayed their mandates.
"There is no leadership now, either in the West Bank or Gaza, that can claim legitimacy in any meaningful sense," said Khaled Elgindy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
At the same time, holding general elections in just the West Bank or Gaza was not seen as an option because it would cement the split.
In calling local elections in the West Bank, Fatah hoped to renew voter support, without appearing to harden the rift with Gaza. Abbas praised Saturday's vote as a "good beginning" and said he hoped local elections would be held soon in Gaza and east Jerusalem.
The West Bank voting was one of the few remaining options for Abbas, whose various strategies have run into dead ends.
"They are flailing in all directions," Nathan Brown, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. "They can't go to the international community for financial support. They can't do (general) elections. They can't do reconciliation. So (they say) let's at least do municipal elections."