Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 November - 1 December 2004
Issue No. 718
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Elections in the offing

Both Fatah and the Palestinian opposition face problems coming up with a Presidential candidate who can unite their forces, Khaled Amayreh reports

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Getting ready for the democratic process: Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli border patrolmen in protest at the construction of the separation wall at Beit Ulla, near Hebron in the West Bank

After days of internal haggling, Fatah Central Committee has decided unanimously to nominate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for President of the Palestinian Authority in the upcoming presidential elections slated for 9 January.

The nomination is expected to be approved by Fatah's revolutionary council and other similar bodies today.

It is not clear if the nomination of Abu Mazen was coordinated with Marwan Barghouti, the less experienced but more popular Fatah secretary-general who is currently serving five consecutive life imprisonment terms in an Israeli goal for masterminding the Palestinian Intifada against the occupation.

Earlier this week, Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, obtained a nomination application form for her husband, suggesting that he was planning to announce his candidacy. Moreover, Fatah's armed wing, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, announced that it would back Barghouti should he decide to nominate himself. This suggests that Fatah, a heterogeneous organisation, is not really unanimous in choosing Abu Mazen to succeed Arafat.

Nonetheless, Palestinian sources intimated that the Fatah Old Guard, including PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, were engaged in "intensive contacts" with Barghouti through his lawyer. The purpose of this dialogue was to convince Barghouti to step down, on the grounds that he is still "a young man and that he has the future before him".

According to the same sources, Barghouti was also promised that intensive efforts would be made to get Israel to free him.

Indeed, PA Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath revealed on Monday that he had asked visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell to exert pressure on Israel to release Barghouti. Powell, who is soon to leave office, met with PA officials in Jericho this week, where he voiced his support for the organisation of elections. Earlier, Powell had received assurances from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would "facilitate" the elections. It was far from clear, however, whether such "facilitation" would involve the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation forces from Palestinian population centres.

Meanwhile, as many as seven candidates have so far announced their intention to stand in the 9 January poll.

One of the candidates is Mustafa Barghouti, a well-known political activist and distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti.

Mustafa Barghouti told Al-Ahram Weekly that he would seek to form a centrist coalition to prevent the recurrence of an "Oslo-like disaster" -- an allusion to the failure of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO.

Earlier, five Palestinian leftist and secular groups, including the People's Party (Communist), the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP & DFLP), the Palestine Democratic Union (Feda), and the Popular Struggle Front, had decided to nominate former Legislative Council member Haidar Abdul-Shafi to run for president.

However, the elderly Gaza figure declined the invitation, citing his poor health and old age.

Abdul-Shafi reportedly recommended that the Democratic Coalition, as the five leftist groups now call themselves, choose Mustafa Barghouti as their candidate.

Barghouti, though popular and widely respected, is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to Abu Mazen, especially if Fatah stands solidly behind him.

His erstwhile affiliation with the Communist-oriented Palestine People's Party, which enjoys relatively little popularity among Palestinians, is likely to militate against his success at the polls.

Barghouti may well seek to enhance his chances by trying to secure the explicit or tacit backing of the wide sectors of Palestinian society which are disenchanted by Abu Mazen's overly dovish attitudes.

Another important presidential hopeful is Abdul-Sattar Qasem, professor of political science at Al-Najah University, who was the first to announce his candidacy.

Qasem told the Weekly that he was the only candidate to have a detailed, written platform, which includes a commitment to preserve and defend the right of return for Palestinian refugees as well as to put up a determined war against corruption.

Qasem hopes to woo "the Islamic forces", "true nationalists", and "disgruntled Fatah supporters" who do not give Abu Mazen the benefit of the doubt and favour a strong and uncompromising stance on such issues as the status of Jerusalem, the right of return and the need to eliminate all Jewish settlements from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

In the meantime, Hamas, the powerful Islamic resistance group, has indicated that the movement might decide to support a certain "candidate" if his positions were agreeable to the movement.

In an interview with the Weekly, Hamas spokesman in the West Bank Hassan Yousuf, said the movement was studying its options.

"This a crucial phase of our national struggle, and taking a passive or indifferent stance towards the elections undermines the interests of both the Palestinian people and the Islamic movement."

Yousuf, who has just been released from an Israeli prison after spending 28 months behind bars for his association with Hamas's political organisation, argued that it was only logical that Hamas should choose the best possible, or least disagreeable, candidate.

"If a candidate declares that he is committed to true democracy, and if he pledges to defend the paramount national issues, then it would be foolish not to support him. Not supporting him would only help other candidates, who might compromise the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."

Yousuf dismissed the PA stance that, according to the law, a presidential election must take place within 60 days from the time the president of the PA dies or is declared senile or unable to perform his constitutional powers.

"Is this law a Quranic injunction?" Yousuf queried. "The term of the legislative council expired four years ago, but the council is still functioning, and nobody is invoking the law."

Earlier, Hamas and other Palestinian factions urged the PA leadership to designate a date for legislative and local elections.

However, the PA argued that it would be impossible to organise general elections within 60 days, and pledged to set a date for legislative and municipal elections very soon.

Hamas, however, seems unsure and does not trust the PA's intentions.

"We are afraid that 'very soon' will turn into an open-ended postponement, in which case the PA would replace Arafat's autocracy with a new form of dictatorship," one Hamas official told the Weekly.

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