RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinians voted for new local councils in dozens of West Bank towns in long delayed elections Saturday, part of an attempt by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement to recapture dwindling political legitimacy.
However, the toxic rivalry between Fatah and the Islamic militant Hamas loomed large over the first Palestinian ballot in six years, and made it unlikely that Saturday's voting will be followed anytime soon by overdue elections for parliament and president.
Hamas prevented voting in the Gaza Strip, the territory the group seized in 2007 from forces loyal to Abbas, and boycotted the contest in the West Bank. Hamas argues 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.
Fatah, though running virtually unopposed in the West Bank, could still be bruised if party renegades defeat Abbas-endorsed candidates in several of the larger towns.
Despite the Hamas boycott and widespread apathy, election officials reported a turnout of 54.8 percent.
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. Efforts to heal the Palestinian political split have failed. And prospects are virtually nil for resuming meaningful negotiations with Israel's government on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in 1967.
"People are crushed by heavy burdens," said Mohammed Nasser, a 25-year-old accountant in the city of Ramallah who planned to stay at home. "Would these elections solve our problems? Of course not."
Others did vote, including 30-year-old Amani Qasim, who said she wanted to see new faces in Ramallah's city council.
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. One polling station, near the city of Nablus, stayed open for an additional hour to accommodate the Samaritans, followers of an offshoot of Judaism, who observed the Sabbath on Saturday and couldn't vote until after nightfall.
Hamas had asked its activists and sympathizers to stay at home. "Our supporters understand that we are not participating, and therefore we expect them not to vote for anyone," said Ahmed Atoun, a Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank.
In several of the main towns, including Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, Fatah renegades formed their own lists, competing against slates officially endorsed by the party. A victory by the renegade lists would be a major embarrassment for Abbas.
While Saturday's vote to some extent measures the standing of Fatah, long plagued by infighting, clan loyalties also play a major role in local elections.
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 parliament 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 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 brick walls.
"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."