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West Bank vote held to help plug Palestinian democracy gap

By Noah Browning

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinians voted in elections in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for the first time in six years on Saturday, but their scant choice of candidates put them out of step with democratic revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world.

The results of the local ballots were expected to reaffirm the Western-backed, mainly secular Fatah party, which runs a de facto government in the slivers of land not policed by Israel, in the face of a boycott by its Islamist arch-rival, Hamas.

While uprisings brought Arab governments from Morocco to Egypt to accommodate long-suppressed Islamist parties, single party rule in the West Bank persists along with Fatah's feud with the more militant and anti-Israel Hamas, which has ruled the coastal Gaza Strip since the two groups clashed in 2007.

"We do not recognize the legitimacy of these elections and we call for them to be stopped in order to protect the Palestinian people and protect their unity," Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said.

Haniyeh, who took office when Hamas won a surprise majority in a parliamentary vote in 2006 - an outcome nullified by the civil war that followed a year later - decried the latest poll as "unilateral elections removed from a national consensus".

Fatah finally found time ripe for the repeatedly-delayed local elections. The party edged out Hamas in university ballots throughout the West Bank earlier this year. Opinion polls show support for the Islamist group has flagged since it began the uphill task of governing impoverished and crowded Gaza.

With Gaza not participating in Saturday's vote and a majority of West Bank residents living in areas where local councils are running uncontested, the election was less meaningful than in previous years.

But fissures within Fatah lent some suspense to the polls. Some local leaders struck out on their own after being spurned from official lists. They may garner a showing, giving them an influential say in local councils.

The final tally of votes was due by Tuesday. According to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, some 54 percent of the half-million eligible voters took part - short of the 70 percent predicted by the West Bank government.

Reflecting the clout of Hamas's boycott call, voter turnout in Hebron, an Islamist political bastion, was just 33.7 percent.

The mood at efficient and well-policed voting stations in schools and public buildings throughout the West Bank was subdued. Palestinians expressed melancholy at their divisions and the seeming permanence of Israel's 45-year-old occupation.

Cars decked with Fatah and Palestinian flags and blaring nationalist anthems made noisy rounds among Bethlehem's polling centers, and candidates hoping to win last-minute support greeted and chatted with voters.

"I heard that the Fatah bloc was made up of good people, so I voted for them," said Amani, 29, who declined to give her last name, drying with tissue her index finger dipped in the indelible purple ink of the voting stations.

"I think in the end all parties have their own political and financial interest in mind. But it is my duty to vote, and so I can say that I've done my part," she said.

EARLY TO DEMOCRACY

Palestinian President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas emphasized a legacy of democracy as he voted in downtown Ramallah, the seat of his government.

"We hope we will be regarded by our brothers in Gaza and everywhere in the Arab world as the ones who first embarked upon democracy, and we continue on this path and we hope everyone will follow us," he told journalists.

Palestinians first held parliamentary elections in 1995, rare among Arab countries at the time and a positive step after the interim Oslo peace accords with Israel earlier that decade.

But permanent peace has proven elusive - illusory, say many Palestinians - and much of the West Bank leadership is made up of veteran officials from the Oslo heyday.

Abbas's Palestinian Authority faces deepening challenges to its legitimacy. Dependency on foreign economic aid has opened up a financial crisis that exploded into street protests in cities up and down the West Bank last month.

Years of imprisonment and marginalization of Hamas activists in the West Bank have deepened Fatah's near monopoly on power. An aggressive campaign to root out corrupt and insubordinate security officers within Fatah cadres this year has further narrowed the faction's inner circle.

But as economic problems worsen amid the standstill of Palestinians' broader political landscape, many hail the vote as an opportunity to focus on development at the grassroots level.

"Of course, there are positive signs in these elections," the Palestinian al-Quds newspaper wrote in an editorial. "The local authorities have an important role in public services and providing an administration for citizens."

(Reporting By Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Jihan Abdalla in Bethlehem; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

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