Palestinians vote in first elections since 2006
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Palestinians voted for new mayors and local councils across the West Bank on Saturday in their first elections since 2006. But turnout was low as the main opposition party, Hamas, boycotted the vote.
Palestinians in the West Bank were on Saturday casting their ballots in local elections in the first vote since the 2006 general elections, in a step boycotted by Gaza's Hamas rulers.
After six hours of voting, officials from the Central Elections Commission (CEC) said the participation rate stood 24.2 percent in all areas except for the southern Hebron district where more than 40 percent of registered voters had shown up.
Just over half a million people are eligible to vote at 340 polling stations in the vote which is being held in 91 of the West Bank's 353 municipalities.
The last time the Palestinians went to the polls was during general elections in January 2006 which the Islamist Hamas movement won by a landslide.
The last local elections were in 2005, when Hamas also chalked up a major victory in its Gaza stronghold in what was the first time it had participated in the democratic process.
But this time around Hamas has refused to take part following the collapse of unity talks with the rival Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
In the absence of Hamas candidates, the competition pits Fatah against independents and leftist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
Initial participation in Saturday's poll stood at a low 10.2 percent but rose to 24.2 percent after six hours of voting, CEC chairman Hanna Nasser said. Preliminary results are due on Sunday with the full results expected "within 72 hours."
A total of 4,696 candidates -- almost 25 percent of them women -- are running on 322 lists, vying for 1,064 local council seats. In Hebron, one of the lists is all-female.
For some, the chance to vote was a welcome opportunity.
"I came to vote in the elections, and I picked a good list for my city," grinned 58-year-old Zuhra Badawi, excitedly waving her ink-stained index finger after voting in Ramallah.
In parts of Ramallah, roadworks blocked several streets and the unpleasant stench of sewage filled the air as residents went out to decide who would be on the next municipal council charged with running the city, an AFP correspondent said.
"I haven't voted yet because of work but I will definitely go and vote because change is good," said a trader called Khalil. "We don't want people to stick in their old positions any more."
But others were more cynical about the prospect of change through the ballot box.
"I don't expect much from these elections despite what I hoped for because there aren't any qualified candidates," complained 60-year-old Mohammed Zahdeh, from Hebron.
"This is a farce, not an election," said Abu Abdullah, a 56-year-old trader from Nablus.
"We want real elections that represent us where people are effective and capable of serving their country, and not people who just bandy around political slogans."
After voting at a school in El-Bireh near Ramallah, Abbas expressed disappointment that the election was not taking place in Gaza.
"We hope our brothers in Hamas will let the democratic process take place in Gaza, not only for local elections but also for presidential and parliamentary elections," he said.
But Hamas said holding the vote solely in the West Bank only served to cement the yawning divide between the two main political movements in the Palestinian territories.
"These elections reinforce the division and have nothing to do with the national consensus," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP, saying holding elections without Gaza would mean the results would have "no significance or legitimacy."
"These are not elections for the Palestinian people but for Fatah."
But UN peace envoy Robert Serry said it was "important" that Palestinians had the opportunity to vote in local elections which are long overdue, "and to participate in decisions that directly affect their daily lives."
He also expressed hope the poll would "re-establish elections as a crucial component of an inclusive democratic process and will serve as a prelude to general elections being organised next year in all of the occupied Palestinian territory in the context of reconciliation" between Hamas and Fatah.
Around 2,000 security forces provided security for the vote and a similar number of observers monitored the process, 130 of them from overseas, officials said.