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Gaza voters go to polls for first ever local elections (AFP-FRANCE PRESSE) BEIT HANUN, Gaza Strip 01/27/05 12:47 PM ET)Source: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=1515&ncid=1515&e=7&u=/afp/20050127/wl_mideast_afp/mideastpalestinianvote_050127174734 AFP} Agence France Presse AFP} Agence France Presse Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BEIT HANUN, Gaza Strip (AFP) - Voters flocked to the polls in 10 municipalities for the Gaza Strip´s first local elections, with the Islamist group Hamas confident of a strong showing in its stronghold.

Polls closed at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), an official from the central elections committee told AFP, with turnout averaging between 82 and 83 percent.

"The elections passed quietly with no violations," Firas Yahi said, adding the final result would be published at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) on Friday.

Queues of people lined up outside polling booths in towns such as Beit Hanun and Deir el Balah with more than 90,000 voters entitled to cast their ballots in 167 polling stations. A total of 414 candidates, many of them independents, are contesting 118 council seats.

Osama Abu Sofiya, director of local elections in Gaza, said that only minor breaches of the electoral law had been reported.

"We have not seen any major violations except for a few candidates who have continued campaigning outside the polling booths," he told AFP.

The size of the turnout reflected the enthusiasm of voters who have been given a first opportunity to choose the line-up of their councils which have gained a reputation for corruption and incompetence.

Hamas has in the past boycotted presidential and legislative elections but it has decided to test its electoral strength this time round, running on an anti-corruption ticket.

It did field some candidates in a round of municipal elections in the West Bank last month but this is seen as the first real test of its popularity.

Mohammed al-Masri, a Hamas candidate in Beit Hanun, said that the organisation´s track record for providing welfare support to the most impoverished Palestinians should stand it in good stead.

"Everybody knows Hamas as a resistance group but Hamas is much more than just that," he told AFP. "We have a reputation as professionals in the social field, providing health and education services as well as welfare support."

Beit Hanun has gained a reputation as a particular Hamas stronghold, serving as the launchpad for rocket attacks by militants on nearby Jewish settlements and over the border into southern Israel.

However residents have also paid a heavy price, with Israel usually responding with raids into the town, destroying buildings and damaging infrastructure.

"We have a very important mission in front of us to rebuild the streets and houses, to solve the problem of essential services, provide electricity in the streets," said Masri.

Ashraf Naim said he would be voting for Hamas as he trusted it much more than the dominant Fatah faction of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas to follow through on reform promises.

"Everybody knows about the problems in the municipalities," he said. "I am voting for Hamas as it wants to reform the institutions and fight corruption."

Regardless of who they intended to vote for, most residents were just delighted to have an opportunity to choose their local leaders.

Sixty-eight-year-old Mohmmed Abu Harbed said it was something he had long waited to see.

"This is the first time I have been able to vote in local elections," he said.

"Elections and democracy is the right way to proceed. This demonstrates the development of the Palestinian people and nation.

"Our people have suffered for the last 50 years and we are all tired of this. Being able to choose our own candidates is the best way to fight corruption."

Municipal elections in major Gaza Strip population centres such as Gaza City, Rafah and Khan Yunis are expected to take place in March or April. (Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse. 01/27/05)

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