Palestinian West Bank local elections a test for Fatah party

Palestinian President Abbas attends opening of Center via teleconference with Bethlehem before meeting with Russian President Putin at Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi

Around 1,143,000 Palestinians are eligible to vote for representatives of 145 local councils, according to the Central Election Committee.

With no legislative or presidential elections in sight, the municipal ballot is seen as a popularity test for Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, caught in a deep rift with Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist by an important number of countries.

But the results indicated lackluster support for the party, which has dominated Palestinian politics for half a century. Nearly 50% of eligible voters turned out on Saturday. Voter turnout in the previous municipal elections, in 2012, was comparable, elections commission director Hisham Khalil said.

However, turnout was far lower in large cities than in surrounding communities, with the lowest in Nablus, the main city in the northern West Bank, where it was less than 21 percent.

"The result wasn't great for us", the head of Fatah's list in Hebron, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, said to AP.

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They also come more than 10 years after Hamas won the majority of seats in the parliament, which left the worldwide community to deal with the implications of a Palestinian nationalist and Islamist movement finding its feet within the mainstream Palestinian political machine.

Fatah only won clear victories in two major cities, Jenin and Jericho. In several towns, Fatah couldn't even get enough candidates to run on a list, instead relying on local Fatah officials to run as independents.

Amjad Mustafa, the manager of a software shop in his thirties, said the vote was "an event not to be missed" after "a long time since we last took part in a democratic event".

Gaza is not having local elections after Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has made a decision to boycott them. Repeated attempts to reconcile have failed.

"The fact that Hamas is boycotting the ballot - that the PFLP and Islamic Jihad are not taking part - really does make this a one-party election, a Fatah election". But with the rival factions disqualifying each other's candidates, Fatah went forward with the elections in the West Bank alone in a bid to renew its legitimacy. Abbas has been in power for more than 12 years despite being elected to what was supposed to be a four-year term.

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