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Palestinians vote in first local elections since 2005

Palestine’s elections were marked by low turnout and diminished expectations for leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.

BETHLEHEM —  For the first time since 2005, Palestinians went to the polls on Saturday to vote for new local and municipal councils.

It is an election that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fervently hopes will bolster his waning political credibility, though the fragility of that hope was underscored by low turnout and diminished expectations of many voters who did bother to turn out.

Orderly, even understated elections took placefrom 7 am to 7 pm in close to a hundred towns and villages throughout the West Bank. In Gaza, Palestinians were prevented from voting by the ruling Hamas faction, which refused to allow a vote to take place in the area it rules and boycotted the balloting in the West Bank, where Abbas’s Fatah party presides.

The election seemed to do little to reconcile the warring Palestinian parties, which have been unable to agree on much of anything since 2007 when Hamas won the elections in Gaza and de facto broke off from the rest of Palestine.

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Hamas’ boycott virtually guaranteed a victory for Fatah, though various Fatah renegade slates and some independent parties presented serious candidacies.

In Bethlehem, one voter, sixty-year old retired schoolteacher Antoinette Alsayeh was lingering near the Lutheran Center, one of five polling places in town.

“I have no feelings,” Alsayeh said. “It’s just that nothing happens, so we have no more feelings at all. We are used to a difficult life.”

Still, a sense of purpose had driven her from her home yesterday morning. 

“I voted because we need to have a good person for Bethlehem. This is an important city for the whole world,” she said, fingering a small gold cross at her neck. “The Holy Virgin Mary was here. Jesus Christ was here. We need to have a very good city.”

The most important issue on the municipal agenda, Alsayeh said, is keeping the city clean and in good repair for the thousands of pilgrims who troop through its winding streets.

Maybe, she said, “it will be good for a woman to be mayor.”

Many Bethlehemites feel pride in the candidacy of Vera Baboun, a university lecturer and a mother of five who leads the Fatah slate and is the first woman to have a chance at managing Bethlehem. (Late Saturday night, unofficial results pointed to her victory, but the official tally will be available only on Monday.)

Bishop Munib Younan, the President of the Lutheran World Federation, who stepped outside just as Mrs Alsayeh was speaking, said that all of the congregation’s pastors had been encouraging their flock to vote.

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“We are promoting democracy and the culture of democracy,” he said. “We are establishing the reality of a two-state solution.”

Highlighting an issue that has emerged as one of the most talked about in the election, Younan said that educating women for empowerment is a top priority for his church.

“We teach them the rights they have in the constitution and we conduct sessions on domestic violence” among other activities, he said. He too thought Baboun had a good chance of winning the mayoralty.

In Hebron, a bastion of conservatism and another cheerful mother of five, Muslim Maysoon Qawasmi is running at the top of Palestine’s first all-female slate of 12 candidates and is hoping to make the cut — 8 percent of the vote is the minimum required for a seat on the 15 member municipal council.

Another woman, Janet Mikhail, already serves as mayor of Ramallah. A victory for Baboun and Qawasmiwould have a significant impact on the place of women in Palestine’s public sphere. 

A law obliges all political parties in Palestine to reserve a minimum of 20 percent of their candidacies for women, but they remain few and far between in the political landscape here. Qawasmi and Baboun, both political novices in their forties, seem to represent the public burgeoning of a slow-burning feminist movement that is finally bringing women to the fore.

Palestinians received a day off for the elections but Bethlehem remained blasé, with little bustle around the various polling places. By the end of the day, about 7000 out of a possible 12,000 votes had been cast.

In the Christian village of Beit Sahour, just east of Bethlehem, an atmosphere of festive preparedness reigned. Many women milled about in stylish summery clothing, accompanied by men whose open shirts on an unusually balmy day— temperatures reached 87 degrees on Saturday— revealed large gold crosses on chains. Muslims, some in traditional garb, also came in a steady stream.

A frail Elias Musleh, 80, hobbled slowly along with the aid of a cane and his fifteen-year-old grandson, Hanna, pronouncing himself “very happy to vote.”

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Awni Jubran, a journalist who is affiliated with Fatah, volunteered as an Elections Commission supervisor at a polling place that expected up to 1300 voters to exercise their rights. For him, the Palestinian elections are little more than a futile exercise in the shadow of much more significant voting days: next month, in the United States, and in January, in Israel.

“We have to wait to see what happens with the elections in the States, first,” he said, adding “Netanyahu is clever. That is why he called early and quick elections. No one else is ready, and he is ahead.” 

Jubran foresees a dim future for Palestinian democracy.

“I don’t think there will be more elections,” he said. “It is a dark situation for Palestinians. You have the Israeli occupation. You have Syria. It is all very important vis-á-vis our situation. You have Syria, Iran and Hezbollah on one side. You have Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar on the other.  And no one worries about the Palestinians.”

“To be honest,” he says, “I’m not really sure there will be a Palestinian Authority in one year. If Israel and Palestine don’t get together and find a solution together we are going in a very dark direction.”