Just over half a million eligible voters are expected at 340 polling centres across the West Bank which opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and which will remain open for 12 hours, the Central Elections Commission (CEC) said.
In the absence of Hamas candidates, the competition pits the Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas against independents and members of various leftist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
It will be essentially be a test of discipline and the balance of forces within Fatah, which has already expelled some of its members for running on rival groups’ tickets.
Despite a slow but steady trickle of voters turning out in the morning, officials said initial participation was low.
“By 10:00 am (0800 GMT), turnout stood at 10.2 percent,” CEC chairman Hanna Nasser told reporters, saying preliminary results would be released on Sunday with the full results expected “within 72 hours.”
Last time the Palestinians voted was in the January 2006 general elections which Hamas won by a landslide.
And during local elections a year earlier, Hamas also won a major victory in its Gaza stronghold — the first time it had participated in the democratic process.
But this time, they are boycotting the vote as “illegitimate” over a long-running dispute with Fatah, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
Abbas said he was disappointed that the vote was not also taking place in Gaza, but said he hoped to see a “strong turnout” after casting his ballot at a school in El-Bireh near Ramallah.
“We hope our brothers in Hamas will let the democratic process take place in Gaza, not only for local elections but also for presidential and parliamentary elections,” he said.
The local elections, he said, were another step in the democratic process that the Palestinians had been following since 1996, the year in which they first held legislative polls.
A total of 4,696 candidates — almost 25 percent of them women — are running on 322 lists, vying for 1,064 local council seats. In the southern city of Hebron, one of the lists is all-female.
“I came to vote in the elections, and I picked a good list for my city,” grinned 58-year-old Zuhra Badawi, excitedly waving her ink-stained index finger in the air after voting at a boys’ school in Ramallah.
In parts of Ramallah, roadworks blocked several streets and the unpleasant stench of sewage filled the air as local residents went out to decide who would be part of the next municipal council charged with running their city, an AFP correspondent said.
“I voted for the list that I wanted and we hope that the next elections will be in four years and not eight or 10,” grumbled Amjad Said, a 46-year-old civil servant from the northern city of Nablus.
Others were less happy about not participating in the long-delayed local elections.
“This is a farce, not an election,” said a 56-year-old merchant called Abu Abdullah, also from Nablus.
“We want real elections that represent us where people are effective and capable of serving their country, and not people who just bandy around political slogans.”
Saturday’s vote was only taking place in 91 of the West Bank’s 353 municipalities after candidates in another 181 localities were appointed unopposed; elections in the remaining areas will be held on November 24, the CEC said.
Around 2,000 security forces were on duty to secure the vote and a similar number of observers were on hand to monitor the process — including 1,890 local monitors and 130 from overseas, officials said.
“Until now, everything is going well,” observer Aref Jaffal told AFP. “Turnout varies from place to place, but it is strongest in Nablus and in Beit Sahur” east of Bethlehem.
At one school in El-Bireh, observers prevented a young man from voting because he was wearing a T-shirt backing one of the local lists, an AFP correspondent said.
He disappeared for a moment, then returned wearing it inside out, after which he was permitted to vote, she said.
The CEC has also for the first time implemented regulations barring voters from taking mobile phones or cameras into polling stations.
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