Initial results show the militant group Hamas has won an overwhelming victory in Palestinian local elections held Thursday in the Gaza Strip, winning nearly two-thirds of the local council seats in 10 districts. The results reflect the widespread support Hamas has in Gaza, and are also seen as a potential turning point for the Islamic group.
Hamas Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called it a victory for the Palestinian people. Thousands of supporters took to the streets in Gaza on Friday, waving green Hamas flags, and hailing the election outcome.
Hamas was expected to do well, since it has broad popular support in Gaza. But Palestinian political pollster Professor Nader Sa'id of Birzeit University says the outcome also reflects a strong protest vote against the mainstream Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.
"At the same time, it's a protest against the political situation, where nothing on the ground is actually changing," he said. "All of that with the economic situation, where you have about 80 percent poverty rate - so you are expecting that people will vote against the status quo."
Many Palestinians see in Hamas an alternative to the often corruption-riddled political establishment. While Israel and the United States have labeled it a terrorist organization, many Palestinians also rely on Hamas for its welfare programs, schools and clinics.
Until recently, the radical Islamic group refused to take part in the political process. But Professor Sa'id says that has now changed.
"Hamas has accepted to be part of the political system - to play within the rules of the game," he said.
Professor Sa'id says the move is significant, since Hamas can no longer play the role of outsider, and will, instead, have to answer to an electorate. That, he says, could make the group more politically moderate.
But, he warns, Hamas will no doubt flex its muscle, in particular in pushing a more conservative social agenda.
"It will be a very tough battle from now on, in terms of legislation, in terms of getting a more progressive agenda on the ground," he said.
President Abbas has been wooing Hamas and other armed groups away from violence and into the political fold, and has gotten their tacit agreement to halt attacks against Israelis. Israel, in turn, announced Friday its military would scale back operations in the West Bank and halt activities in Gaza, where Palestinian security forces are now deployed.
The next real test of strength for Hamas will come in broader local elections scheduled in 100 communities in the West Bank and Gaza in April, and then in the parliamentary elections to be held in July.