Palestinians choose mayors and local councils in communities across the West Bank on Saturday, a rare chance to cast ballots after more than a decade without presidential or legislative elections.
Tribal loyalties often trump party affiliation at the local level, but the vote is also seen as a test for the embattled, nepotism-tainted Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Even without the participation of the rival Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip, Fatah is expected to face stiff challenges from some independent candidates with large tribal backing.
Elections commission spokesman Fared Tomallah says some 390 councils are being chosen, with 145 of them being contested by multiple candidates. Results will be announced Sunday.
Both Fatah and Hamas were supposed to compete in elections last year in both the West Bank and Gaza. But with the rival movements disqualifying each other's candidates, Fatah decided to go forward with the elections in the West Bank alone in a bid to renew its legitimacy. There haven't been presidential and parliamentary elections since 2005 and Abbas' term has officially long expired.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah says Hamas prevented its members from taking part in the election and called on its new political leadership to agree to a national unity government followed by comprehensive elections. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said it was Fatah who excluded Gaza and Hamas because they were not interested in partnership.
There are about 2.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank. The 300,000 residents of east Jerusalem were not voting Saturday.
In Hebron, the West Bank's largest city, posters of candidates filled the city's main buildings. Activists at Fatah headquarters were busy getting out the vote and arranging rides for relatives to the ballot stations.
The head of the Fatah list in Hebron, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, said their strategy was to pick "qualified candidates" from the tribes.
Rival lists also looked to the same electorate.
"This is the traditional elections tactic of reaching out to tribes," said Khaled Qawasmi, a former Fatah official who was fired for running independently. "Municipalities need qualified people, people who are capable of improving the level of services and meet the growing needs of the people."
Palestinians typically vote in municipal elections according to political bases. But without Hamas in the running, many chose to stay home and election officials said turnout was far lower than usual.
"I came to exercise my democratic rights," said Bishara Dabbah, a 55-year-old Ramallah resident. "We are here to start a new generation in Ramallah, a new future for Ramallah, and I hope everybody will vote their conscience."