RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinians voted for mayors and local councils in 93 communities across the West Bank on Saturday, their first chance to cast ballots in six years.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party hope the election will revive flagging popular support in an ostensibly fail-proof environment, with Fatah rival Hamas boycotting the West Bank vote. Hamas also blocked elections in Gaza, the territory it seized from Abbas in 2007.
Abbas' party could still walk away bruised, however, if turnout is particularly low or if Fatah renegades competing in several of the larger communities defeat candidates formally endorsed by the movement.
The election is also overshadowed by widespread voter apathy and a general sense of malaise.
Abbas' Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government in parts of the Israeli-controlled West Bank, 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 hardline government on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in 1967.
Loss of hope may keep many from the polls, along with an appeal by Hamas to its supporters to stay home.
At a polling station in Ramallah, only eight people voted in the first two hours, but volunteers there said they expect it to get busier toward the end of the day. Amani Qasim, 30, said she voted because she wanted to see new faces in Ramallah's city council.
Mahmoud Imran, a 22-year-old law student in the city, said he would not vote. "I no longer believe those politicians. I no longer believe they will bring a state or anything else," he said.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) Saturday and were set to close 12 hours later. Some 515,000 registered voters in 93 cities, towns and villages are eligible, said Fared Tomallah, an election official. Voters pick slates instead of individual candidates, and results are expected by early Sunday.
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 Tomallah.
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.
Mahmoud Aloul, a Fatah official, said 70 Fatah members were expelled from the party for running on independent lists.
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.
Shafiq Deis, a 70-year-old carpenter in the town of Beit Sahour south of Jerusalem, said he and others are guided by family loyalties. "There is no such thing as who is better (as a candidate)," he said. "If my cousin is running, I give it (the vote) to my cousin."
Hamas could claim victory if the turnout is particularly low. "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.
Hamas has prevented the local vote from taking place in Gaza. It argues that any elections must wait until after a broader reconciliation deal with Abbas. The movement also says its candidates in the West Bank would risk being targeted by Israeli troops and Abbas' security forces. Critics contend Hamas also opposes elections in Gaza because it does not want to give its largely vanquished rivals, particularly from Fatah, a new foothold.
Elections for local councils, parliament and president are long overdue in the Palestinian territories. Local elections were last held in 2004 and 2005, and Hamas won control of several main cities at the time.
Abbas came to power in presidential elections in 2005, and Hamas defeated Fatah in parliament elections in 2006. After the political split broke wide open, following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, the two sides failed to agree on the terms for new elections.
Elected politicians in both camps have been losing legitimacy because they overstayed their mandates. 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. It was also 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."
Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Beit Sahour contributed report.