President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas lauded the poll as a “democratic celebration for the Palestinian people,” as he voted in the Ramallah-district of al-Bireh.
“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.
Local council elections were held in stages in 2005, but never completed after Hamas’ electoral victory a year later prompted inter-factional fighting that split the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas boycotted Saturday’s election, saying persecution of its members would prevent a fair vote.
Abbas said he hopes to hold elections in Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israeli-occupied Jerusalem “to complete our happiness.”
He called for rejection of “trivialities and exchanging blame” after Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh decried the poll as “unilateral elections removed from a national consensus.”
“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,” Haniyeh said.
Senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil told Ma’an that the elections are an “absurdity” and enhance the political division between both factions.
PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Ma’an he was optimistic the poll would be followed by national elections, after casting his vote in his home county Tulkarem.
“Honestly, we are used to beginning something and not finishing it,” Fayyad said, pointing out that the PA had now progressed beyond voter and candidate registration to actual voting. The electoral process for municipal councils had several false starts in recent years as Fatah and Hamas tussled over a reconciliation agreement, which has still yet to be implemented.
Fayyad denied that the elections would entrench the division between the West Bank and Gaza. “It’s time to get over the split… it was a complicated election but there shouldn’t be any excuses to prevent it going ahead,” he told Ma’an.
He said he had received information that despite the boycott, Hamas members were casting votes. The prime minister said he was advocating for people in Gaza, even if they are prevented by Hamas from voting, to put themselves forward as candidates if future polls are held.
“Hamas will be responsible politically and ethically for preventing people from voting and must be judged for that,” he added.
Hamas’ concerns on the political context have been backed up by human rights groups.
While supporting democratic transition amid long-overdue polls, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said this week the conditions necessary for a transparent, fair election have not been met.
It expressed “deep concern” over the holding of local elections, “in light of the limiting of public freedoms and continuing widespread violations of human rights by the PA.”
Rights advocates have also emphasized limitations on choice, even without Hamas participating. Saturday’s poll is taking place in just 92 of the 353 municipalities in the West Bank.
No eligible lists of candidates have registered in another 78 districts, and a second round of elections will be held on Nov. 24 in these areas.
Meanwhile, 181 electoral districts will be automatically allocated because only one electoral list registered.
But procedurally, the central elections commission has emphasized the poll is under close scrutiny by thousands of observers, and the PA notes Palestinian law allows local elections to take place in stages.
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry, who is visiting polling stations in Ramallah, said the vote is important to give citizens a role in decisions that affect their lives.
Serry said he hopes the vote “will re-establish elections as a crucial component of an inclusive, democratic process and will serve as a prelude to general elections being organized next year in all of the occupied Palestinian territory in the context of reconciliation.”