NABLUS, West Bank – Posters for two competing candidates in this weekend's Palestinian local elections are affixed to road signs, buildings, power lines, and vehicles in this bustling West Bank city. Despite the crush of campaign color, the first municipal balloting in Palestinian areas in six years has largely fallen flat.
Only Palestinians in the West Bank will vote Saturday, choosing mostly between rivals from the dominant but disorganized Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas. Gaza's Hamas rulers, who seized control of the territory from Abbas' forces in 2007, will not allow elections there, and Hamas loyalists in the West Bank are boycotting the vote.
The result is a lackluster campaign that has generated little public enthusiasm while deepening the split between the two territories that the Palestinians hope one day will be a single state.
"For the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, the elections are something of a disaster," said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Abbas himself was elected in a 2005 election two months after the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The following year, the Palestinians held legislative elections. But since then, efforts to deepen democracy in the Palestinian areas have stumbled. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, repeated attempts to reconcile the rival governments have failed, as have short-lived proposals to hold new presidential and legislative elections.
Abbas announced the local elections earlier this year, hoping to revive his popularity among Palestinians. Abbas' public standing has plunged due to his inability to heal the rift with Hamas, a faltering economy and a deadlock in peace talks with Israel. Palestinians seek the West Bank and Gaza, located on opposite sides of Israel, for a future state.
Abbas serves as president of the Palestinian Authority, a Western-backed government that has partial autonomy in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.
In municipal elections, clan loyalties play as much of a role as party politics, and Saturday's vote is only an indirect test of the standing of Abbas and Fatah. In many locations, Fatah has brought independents and local dignitaries into Fatah-backed slates to improve chances of success.
The vote comes at a time of mounting problems for Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, a political independent. In recent months, Fayyad has had difficulty paying the salaries of civil servants and members of the security forces, a backbone of the small Palestinian economy.
In September, thousands of people took to the streets to protest rising prices and delayed salary payments by the cash-strapped government.
"People are drowning in their problems," said Samer Hajaj, a 52-year-old salesman. "They see no way out through local elections."
Bank teller Dana al-Sayed, 20, said she'd vote for the Fatah list, while her mother Susan, 45, wouldn't vote.
"I'm waiting for my delayed salary. I can't think of anything else," the mother said.
Some Palestinians worry that voting without Gaza's participation will deepen the split between Palestinians. Hamas refused to participate in elections, saying Palestinians needed political reconciliation first. But in the West Bank, it is difficult for Hamas activists to participate anyway, because security forces often crack down on them.
Suggesting Abbas' party didn't want to face challengers, security forces detained and released more than 120 suspected Hamas loyalists since campaigning began in recent weeks. They were interrogated over their voting preferences to see which independents might be sympathetic to the group, said Isam Abdeen of Palestinian rights group al-Haq. A government spokesman said they were held for security reasons.
The internal rivalries in Fatah were on full display in Nablus, a bustling commercial center in the northern West Bank.
One candidate's bloc is led by senior party member Fatah Amin Makboul. The other is topped by Ghassan Shakaa, a long-standing Fatah man. Both are desperately trying to interest voters by holding meetings, distributing posters and clogging up radio waves with gravelly voiced men promising to help farmers, build youth centers and even try release prisoners held by Israel.
Although there are 900,000 eligible voters in 353 local authorities, less than a third will vote. In 181 municipal councils, residents formed councils without elections. In many areas, prominent families tend to dominate councils, or respected professionals are appointed. In 78 communities, nobody wanted to run, delaying elections.
One bright spot is that one-quarter of the 5,000 contestants are women, including an all-women's list in the southern city of Hebron. Nearly one-fifth of the members of current municipal councils are women, a high number for a deeply conservative and male-dominated region.