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Palestinians hold first vote in six years

The polls have closed in the West Bank, where Palestinians voted in their first election in six years. The Islamist Hamas Party refused to take part in the elections.

The absence of Hamas, which enjoyed a huge victory in the 2006 election, suited the rival, Western-backed Fatah Party. Hamas pulled out of the race after the collapse of unity talks with Fatah president Mahmud Abbas.

"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 – which was nullified by the civil war the next year - referred to the vote as "unilateral elections removed from a national consensus."

So while voters headed to the polls in the West Bank, there was no voting in Gaza, where Hamas rules.

Fatah dominates the West Bank's Palestinian Authority, running a de facto government in the areas not policed by Israel.

At the polls

Without Hamas candidates, the choices were narrowed to Fatah candidates, independents and leftist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

With Gaza not participating, and with various local councils running uncontested, the election was less meaningful than in previous years, and the mainly secular Fatah Party was widely expected to win.

Recent fissures within Fatah, however, offered a bit of drama at the polls. Some local leaders, for example, ran independently after being spurned from official lists. They may win a following, which could grant them a voice in local councils.

This weekend's vote had been repeatedly delayed, but Fatah finally found the time ripe to open the polls. Fatah edged out Hamas in university ballots earlier this year, and opinion polls have also reflected a drop in support for the Islamist group.

Voting history

The first Palestinian parliamentary elections were held in 1995. Such votes were rare among Arab countries at the time, so the development was seen as a positive step after the interim Oslo peace accords with Israel.

Permanent peace, however, has proven elusive.

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission said on Saturday that 54 percent of the half million eligible voters cast ballots. In Hebron, a Hamas bastion, only 33.7 percent of voters turned out.

Final results are expected on Tuesday.

tm/ccp (AFP, Reuters)