Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah faction survived a challenge by Hamas in local elections but the Islamic militant group opposed to peace with Israel showed it is an increasingly potent political force.
Unofficial results released on Friday showed Hamas making strong inroads in key urban centers in the West Bank and Gaza, an indicator it could do well in this summer’s parliamentary ballot, possibly complicating Abbess's peace efforts.
Fatah won control of 52 of the 84 municipal councils being contested in the West Bank and Gaza to 24 for Hamas in Thursday’s vote, the Palestinian Election Committee said. Smaller factions took four councils, and four were undecided.
Hamas disputed the results and said it captured 34 seats.
Commenting on the discrepancy Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said many of the independent candidates who won council seats in the West Bank actually belonged to Hamas but chose not to run as members of the group for security reasons.
The election was fought against the backdrop of a fragile three-month-old cease-fire with Israel engineered by Abbas, a U.S. favorite, a deal that has raised hopes of reviving Middle East peacemaking following 4-1/2 years of violence.
Fatah is committed to a two-state solution with Israel, while Hamas -- the driving force behind a suicide bombing campaign against Israelis during the Palestinian uprising -- is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state.
Fatah, founded by the late Yasser Arafat and long the dominant mainstream political faction, had seen its popularity slip amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Hamas, which boycotted previous polls, posed an electoral challenge to Fatah after gaining street credibility for its fight against Israel, its piety and charity work.
Fatah officials put the best face on the election outcome, which they hope will bolster Abbess's program of political and security reforms demanded by Washington and Israel.
“The preliminary results assure the Palestinian people that Fatah continues to be the strongest and the most influential faction,” said Jibril Rajoub, a security adviser to Abbas.
Despite that, some Fatah officials fear their movement could get hammered by Hamas in parliamentary polls due in July, which a senior official said could be delayed by disputes over election law changes that some feel may aid Hamas.
Hamas showed its strength in Thursday’s ballot by winning control of municipal councils in several of the largest urban areas, including Rafah, Beit Lahiya and Bureij in the Gaza Strip and Qalqilya in the West Bank.
Final official results were not expected until late on Saturday or early on Sunday. More than 2,500 candidates vied for the council seats and turnout was high -- 80 percent in Gaza and 70 percent in the West Bank, officials said. Some 400,000 Palestinians were eligible to vote.
Hamas had trounced Fatah in an earlier round of municipal voting in Gaza in January and made a strong showing in a similar West Bank poll in December, though Fatah got more seats. A final round is planned for later this year.
Candidates for Hamas, which has agreed to abide by the truce with Israel, ran on the slogan “partners in blood, partners in decision-making”. Some voters said they wanted power-sharing after decades of Fatah domination.
Abbas, who took office in January, has vowed reforms to weed out unaccountable, incompetent officials and establish law and order. Last month he forcibly retired a number of Arafat loyalists in a security service shakeup.