RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian election officials said Sunday that voters choosing new local councils in the West Bank rebuffed candidates from President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement in five of the 11 main towns, an apparent blow to the Palestinian leader.
Fatah had hoped to revive its flagging political legitimacy with Saturday's municipal elections, the first voting in the Palestinian territories in more than six years. With main rival Hamas boycotting the election, Fatah counted on a strong endorsement from voters.
Fatah won local council majorities in six towns, but lost in five others, a performance some said fell below expectations. In four of the towns where Fatah lost, including Ramallah, the seat of Abbas' government, voters preferred independent lists dominated by Fatah breakaways. In a fifth, biblical Bethlehem, never a Fatah stronghold, leftists and independents won.
Election officials spoke anonymously as official results were not to be released until later in the day.
Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assad claimed Sunday that the results, also reported in the local media, signaled "huge support for the party and its program."
However, analysts portrayed the outcome as a blow to Abbas and Fatah's leadership. "The elections reflected people's disappointment in the leadership's ability to lead them to a common goal," said pollster Nader Said.
Elections were held in 93 West Bank towns and villages, with close to 55 percent of 505,000 eligible voters casting ballots, election officials said. In 261 smaller communities, local leaders were picked by consensus or there were no candidates. Official results were expected later Sunday.
The vote was held at a difficult time for Abbas.
His Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government that controls parts of the West Bank, has been plagued by a chronic cash crisis for months, struggling to pay the salaries of some 150,000 public sector employees.
Fatah once dominated Palestinian politics, but has been in disarray since the death of Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, in 2004. Even after being trounced by the Islamic militant group Hamas in parliament elections in 2006, Fatah largely failed to reform or reinvent itself.
Repeated attempts to reconcile with Hamas, which seized Gaza in 2007, have run aground. And there is little chance of renewing meaningful talks with Israel's hardline government on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in 1967.
Hamas boycotted the local election in the West Bank and banned it from being held in the Gaza Strip. Hamas officials argued that elections can only be held after Hamas and Fatah reconcile. The ongoing split makes it unlikely elections for parliament and president — long overdue just like the local voting — will be held anytime soon.
Hamas also argued it couldn't risk fielding candidates in the West Bank because they might be targeted by Israeli troops and Abbas' security forces. Both have arrested Hamas activists in the past, including members of parliament.
"This election enforces the split," said Mahmoud Ramahi, a West Bank Hamas leader, referring to the division between Hamas-run Gaza and the West Bank, where Abbas is in charge.
According to the unofficial results, Fatah won local council majorities in Hebron, the West Bank's largest city, as well as the smaller towns of Qalqiliya, Tulkarem, Jericho, Salfit and El Bireh, election officials said. In Nablus, the second largest city, as well as in Ramallah, Jenin and Tubas, voters picked independent lists dominated by Fatah breakaways.
Ghassan Shakaa, who led a group of Fatah renegades to victory in Nablus, said Fatah's leaders are out of touch with ordinary Palestinians. "Fatah made the same old mistakes," he said of the movement's election strategy.
Shakaa, a longtime Fatah activist, served as mayor of Nablus in the past, but quit the party before the election because of disagreements over the composition of its list of candidates in the city.
Many Fatah activists competing against the movement's official candidates were expelled from Fatah before the election. It was not clear whether they would return to the fold or steer an independent course.