Jerusalem Political heirs of the late Yasser Arafat solidified their hold on power in this week's Palestinian local elections, but candidates from the radical group Hamas gained ground, particularly in the Gaza Strip, unofficial results released Friday show.
Arafat's Fatah party won control of 14 of the 26 local councils up for grabs, the results showed, providing the group with a confidence-boosting victory ahead of elections Jan. 9 to pick a Palestinian president.
Hard-liners from Hamas secured majorities in nine locations, however, including the West Bank's Jericho, the largest city up for grabs. Fatah-Hamas coalitions appeared poised to run councils in three other villages.
The local elections were the first such votes in more than two decades in Palestinian areas and were the first opportunity to gauge the relative support of Fatah, generally considered more willing to compromise in negotiations with Israel, and Hamas, which has conducted a chilling four-year suicide-bombing campaign against Israeli targets and has vowed to continue fighting Israel.
Fatah officials said they had won 66 percent of votes cast.
Both groups hailed the results, expected to be finalized today, as did elections officials.
"These results appear to demonstrate a real desire by our people, despite the trouble and the Israeli occupation, to participate in democracy," said Ziad abu Zayyad, a Palestinian Authority elections official.
Voting, conducted Thursday, went largely without difficulty, though lines were long in some locations and polls were kept open for hours past the scheduled closing. Officials said turnout was 85 percent.
The campaign to replace Arafat, who died Nov. 11, officially gets under way today. Seven candidates are running, but pragmatic Palestine Liberation Organization leader Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, is considered the front-runner.
Because the Palestinian Authority is an outgrowth of the 1993 Oslo Peace accords that Hamas bitterly opposed, the Islamic group is boycotting the presidential election.
But with its leadership decimated by Israeli air strikes and arrests, Hamas decided to beef up its political operation and take part in this week's local elections, and the results may encourage it to run candidates in legislative elections next year.