For the first time since 2005, Palestinians in the West Bank on Saturday headed to the polling polls to elect mayors and heads of village councils.

Palestinian Authority President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas emphasized a legacy of democracy as he voted in downtown Ramallah.

"We hope we will be regarded by our brothers in Gaza and everywhere in the Arab world as the ones who first embarked upon democracy, and we continue on this path and we hope everyone will follow us," he told journalists.

The vote is being boycotted by Hamas, which has also banned local elections in the Gaza Strip.

"We do not recognize the legitimacy of these elections and we call for them to be stopped in order to protect the Palestinian people and protect their unity," Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said.

Haniyeh, who took office when Hamas won a surprise majority in a parliamentary vote in 2006 - an outcome nullified by the civil war that followed a year later, decried the latest poll as "unilateral elections removed from a national consensus."

More than 500,000 Palestinians are entitled to vote in the West Bank elections.

However, expectations are that turnout would be very low as many Palestinians have in the past few weeks displayed indifference toward the elections.

With Gaza not participating in Saturday's vote and a majority of West Bank residents living in areas where local councils are running uncontested, the election was less meaningful than in previous years.

Less than half of citizens surveyed by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research said they would vote, and an even smaller number thought the ballot would be fair.

About 2,000 local and foreign monitors have been assigned to supervise the elections.

Fatah candidates are expected to score a landslide victory as they don't seem to face serious contenders. Some local leaders struck out on their own after being spurned from official lists in a sign of personal disputes. They may garner a showing giving them an influential say in local councils.

Cars decked with Fatah and Palestinian flags blaring nationalist anthems made noisy rounds among Bethlehem's polling centers, and candidates hoping to win last-minute support greeted and chatted with voters.

"I heard that the Fatah bloc was made up of good people, so I voted for them," said Amani, 29, who declined to give her last name, drying with tissue her index finger dipped in the indelible purple ink of the voting stations.

"I think in the end all parties have their own political and financial interest in mind. But it is my duty to vote, and so I can say that I've done my part," she said.

The Authority faces deepening challenges to its legitimacy. An addiction to foreign economic aid has opened up a financial crisis that exploded into street protests in cities up and down the West Bank last month.

An aggressive campaign to root out corrupt and insubordinate security officers within Fatah's own cadres this year has further narrowed the ruling clique.

But as economic problems worsen amid the standstill of Palestinians' broader political landscape, many hail the vote as an opportunity to renew institutions and focus on development at the grassroots level.

"Of course, there are positive signs in these elections," the Palestinian al-Quds newspaper wrote in an editorial. "The local authorities have an important role in public services and providing an administration for citizens."

Final results are expected to be announced Sunday.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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