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Palestinian student elections provide rare test of voter mood

BIRZEIT, West Bank (Reuters) - Candidates linked to the Islamist group Hamas won the largest share of seats on a university student council on Wednesday, in a ballot that offered a rare test of voter sentiment for Palestinians, who had their last parliamentary elections almost two decades ago.

In a campus festooned with green, red and yellow political banners, the Hamas-affiliated list won 25 seats on the 51-seat Birzeit University student council, against 20 for the group associated with Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas.

With no parliamentary elections since 2006, the process is also a check on the political pulse of a geographically and politically divided Palestinian nation as speculation mounts over the future of its octogenarian president.

Abbas was elected in 2005 and has ruled by decree for some 14 years since his mandate expired.

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Recent polls show almost 80% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign and growing support for armed groups. But with both the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority curbing political activity, students say university campuses are among the few places in the West Bank that remain relatively open for organising.

"It is the only place where we can exercise our democratic right and vote," said Anan Safi, a 20 year-old graphic design student, who voted for the list associated with the socialist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). "We don't have presidential or national elections."

Iyad Tomar, head of the election committee and dean of students at Birzeit said the elections were an opportunity to strengthen democratic values among the young. The elected council will represent student interests.

"What makes the election at Birzeit University significant is that it reflects the different political perspectives in Palestinian society," he said.

For 20 year-old computer science Loor Azem, family affiliations helped persuade her to vote for Fatah, which has historically dominated at Birzeit. In recent years however, as the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority has seen its popularity dive, the student branch of the party has also struggled against the Hamas-affiliated Islamist bloc.

The Islamist group, which doesn't allow elections in Gaza universities, has used the student polls across the West Bank as an opportunity to consolidate its presence in the West Bank.

Earlier this month, the Islamist list won student elections at An-Najah University in Nablus, the largest in the West Bank.

Palestinians exercise limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, which they want as the core of a future independent state.

(Reporting by Henriette Chacar; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)