Jodi Rudoren
The New York Times
October 20, 2012 - 12:00am

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The dominant Fatah faction of the Palestinian Authority posted mixed results in municipal elections across the West Bank on Saturday, winning in some key cities and losing in others, but with the whole exercise appearing compromised by a relatively low turnout.

Officials counted ballots at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday. Turnout was about 55 percent.

The twice-postponed local votes in 93 cities and villages were the first elections of any kind in the Palestinian territories in six years. Election officials said just under 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, far less than the approximately three-quarters who turned out for the 2006 parliamentary elections or the two-thirds who did so in municipal elections in 2004 and 2005.

“We are proud of the performance,” Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, said at an evening news conference here. “The results were satisfactory.”

Fatah had hoped that the elections would lend it legitimacy, but the poor showing could signal strength for its rival Hamas, the militant Islamic party that rules the Gaza Strip and which boycotted the balloting. The party had won the 2006 parliamentary election. With a financial crisis plaguing the Palestinian Authority, the turnout could also reflect cynicism and apathy in a place where politics have long been adrift. Elections were not held in about 250 municipalities, either because no candidates registered or because those who did were running unopposed.

According to preliminary results released Saturday night by the election commission or its local affiliates, Fatah-controlled lists won majorities of the council seats in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city; Bethlehem, where a woman is poised to become mayor; El Bireh and Beituniya, small cities neighboring Ramallah, the seat of government for the Palestinian Authority; and Tulkarm. In Ramallah, where no official Fatah list competed, a group of independents close to the party and known as the Town Sons secured 9 of the 15 seats and celebrated by hoisting their leader atop their shoulders for a nighttime march.

But in Nablus, the official Fatah ticket was defeated by a slate led by Ghassan Shakaa, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee who was among dozens of Fatah activists ousted from the party this month because they had decided to run independently. Similarly, in the northern town of Jenin, an independent list of former Fatah members posted more votes than the party’s official one.

Maysoun Qawasmi, who garnered international media attention heading an all-woman ticket in conservative Hebron, which has not held local elections since 1976, won 493 votes, not enough to secure a single seat on the council. Fatah won nine seats, with the other six going to a list headed by another former Fatah member running under the slogan “Modern Hebron.”

After a slow day — turnout was about 35 percent as of 4 p.m. — polling stations were crowded in the 30 minutes before they closed at 7 p.m., election officials said. Because of the rift between Fatah and Hamas, there were no elections in the Gaza Strip, and no official Hamas candidates competing in the West Bank.

Outside Al Mughtaribeen School, in the older section of El Bireh, popcorn vendors were doing a brisk business as men and women lined up to vote.

“I am happy that this long-awaited event is finally taking place,” said one Ramallah voter, Hani Siam, 55, a lawyer. “Whatever the results are, they will impact positively the life of citizens, and this is the main task of local councils.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, described the elections as a “democratic wedding” as he cast his ballot Saturday morning at Al Mustaqbal School in El Bireh, where turnout was particularly low, less than 27 percent.

“There is no way to govern people except through democracy and ballot boxes,” said Mr. Abbas, adding that he is still hoping for an agreement with the Hamas leadership to conduct presidential and legislative elections soon.

One town with high turnout was Deir al Ghusun, hometown of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority: nearly 73 percent of the town’s 4,987 voters showed up, according to the election commission. Mr. Fayyad, whose administration’s financial crisis has been the object of street protests, called the election “an important process to win the battle of building democracy on the road to winning the battle of national liberation.”

But Mohammad Yousef, 33, a taxi driver in Ramallah, skipped the election, along with Hamas. “I think voting now deepens the separation between Gaza and the West Bank more than ever,” he said. “How can I vote when my family in Gaza does not exercise the same right?”

Ahmad Kanas, a mechanic, said he was too busy working to feed his children to vote for candidates he did not believe in. “They sell you a lot of promises,” he said, “but when they are elected, they turn their backs to you when you need them.”

Still, Samira Mohammad, a schoolteacher, said she was eager to vote because her town, Beituniya, needed better roads and water service and more health clinics. “I want to make change and not speak about change,” she said.

Lina Jadallah, an archivist at Bir Zeit University, said she regretted that Hamas was not participating in the vote, “but life can’t stop.”

Khaled Abu Aker reported from Ramallah, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.


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