By Noah Browning
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinians voted in local elections in the Israel-occupied West Bank on Saturday, their first vote for six years and one with little choice, out of step with democratic revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world.
The results were expected to largely 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 and opinion polls show flagging support for the Islamist group 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.
Less than half of citizens surveyed by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research said they would vote, and an even smaller number thought the ballot would be fair.
But fissures within Fatah lent some suspense to the polls. Some local leaders struck out on their own after being spurned from official lists in a sign of personal disputes. They may garner a showing giving them an influential say in local councils.
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 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 Authority President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas emphasized a legacy of democracy as he voted in downtown Ramallah, his capital while Israel denies Palestinian government a seat in the contested holy city of Jerusalem.
"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 the previous year, which have long lapsed and become an albatross for the same, sclerotic Palestinian leadership of the present day.
The Authority faces deepening challenges to its legitimacy. An addiction to 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 in self-ruled West Bank enclaves.
An aggressive campaign to root out corrupt and insubordinate security officers within Fatah's own cadres this year has further narrowed the ruling clique.
But as economic problems worsen amid the standstill of Palestinians' broader political landscape, many hail the vote as an opportunity to renew institutions and 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; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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