In a vote that was widely seen as a test of strength between Hamas and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the Islamic militant group has won a huge victory in local elections in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian election officials said Friday.
Hamas won 77 out of the 118 seats in 10 districts, most of them small communities, the officials said. Official results of the election, which was held on Thursday, were to be announced later on Friday.
Voter turnout topped 80 percent in elections where candidates competed for 118 seats in the 10 municipal councils. Fatah, the governing party, won 26 seats, independents took 14 and the Popular Front gained one seat, the officials said.
Abbas has been trying to coax a cease-fire from militants spearheading a four-year-old revolt and prevent a chaotic power vacuum in Gaza when Israeli troops and settlers withdraw this year under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan.
A U.S. State Department official had no immediate comment on the elections but said, “We’ll follow this situation and see if it has any effect on President Abbas’s moves to control the security situation and to eliminate violence.”
Abbas was elected to succeed Yasser Arafat as president by a landslide this month. But the vote was boycotted by Islamist groups opposed to peace accords with Israel and, according to surveys, had the support of about one-quarter of the public. Hamas, which made a strong showing in municipal elections in the West Bank last month, is still debating whether to take part in parliamentary elections in July.
“This means that the Palestinian people refuse corruption and hope for change to protect its interests,” said a Hamas spokesman, Moshor el-Masri. “This significant result also means that democracy has won.”
The elections began last month in over two dozen West Bank communities. More rounds are planned across the West Bank and Gaza in the coming months. Militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have won wide backing not only because they are at the forefront of the fighting but also because they run charities that help needy Palestinians in the absence of government support.
Political analysts say that by taking part in the elections, Hamas is also demonstrating its political sway – and claim to a share of power – ahead of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.