Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2004
Issue No. 720
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Azmi Bishara

Election fever

So what is there to talk about, asks Azmi Bishara

The average Palestinian has every right to be baffled by the term "Palestinian opposition". The term is incomprehensible -- we do not have a state with such things as a government and an opposition. But it is not just that. I am thinking, too, of opposition as a mode of political behaviour and way of thinking.

Palestinian forces opposed to the Oslo accords boycotted the only Palestinian legislative elections that have been held until now on the grounds that these elections were "a product of Oslo". Opposing Oslo myself, I fail to understand this logical leap. It is perfectly possible to take a political stand against Oslo and to continue to oppose it within the framework of the electoral process. The elections and opposition to the elections are both "products of Oslo", unless the opposition is of the sort that does not engage in political processes, which means it has failed to distinguish between condemning reality, the struggle to change that reality and the inability or refusal to acknowledge reality.

Whether or not one agrees with stances on the "products" of Oslo, what is particularly dumbfounding is the ease with which some of those political forces that had once boycotted the parliamentary elections have now shifted to demanding parliamentary elections, as a precondition, moreover, to participating in presidential elections. How did one absolute "produce" its antithesis? When and why, precisely, did this turnabout from boycott to participation take place, and when and why did the demand for parliamentary elections escalate to a precondition for participating in presidential elections?

In boycotting parliamentary elections the "opposition" passed up a historic opportunity to become a political pole within the Legislative Council. In other words, it forfeited the chance to transform itself into a banner for political opposition, not through resistance alone but also by translating resistance into a legitimate political force within the framework of the existing and internationally recognised Palestinian political governing entity. Today the opposition has passed up the historic opportunity to participate actively in the PA presidential elections by not fielding a candidate to rival the PA candidate. Even if these elections are restricted to the West Bank and Gaza, and thus exclude the Palestinian diaspora, the "opposition" knows that the PA president will represent at the very least the Palestinians' negotiating authority. So why not offer an alternative candidate who might represent an alternative platform of minimum demands? Why not forward a single candidate for all opposition forces if, in fact, they consider the principles that they have in common and that simultaneously set them apart from the PA more important than their inter-factional rivalries for power and influence?

Let's complicate matters and posit, as some do, that the most important Palestinian political position is not the presidency of the PA but the chairmanship of the PLO, which represents all the Palestinian people. On the basis of this opinion, the opposition forces advocate reviving PLO institutions and severing them from the PA. This happens to be a position I agree with. But then why not nominate a rival candidate for the PLO chairmanship, if only to register the fact that there exists an alternative policy for running the PLO and also to bring that organisation to the centre of the political stage?

Unfortunately the reverse has happened. The PLO chairmanship elections were a marginal event that flew by without stirring the slightest debate, while PA elections continued to rivet everyone's attention, including that of the opposition. Yet it was the PLO, not the PA, that signed the Oslo accords. Certainly the opposition forces should have something to say about that, and its bearing on how the PLO is run. Not only did the elections for the head of the PLO Executive Council fail to stir discussion, it was said that the need for unity necessitated that everyone vote for the Fatah candidate. Evidently unity in this part of the world is synonymous with unanimity. The democratic notion of unity, on the other hand, implies that it is possible to field a candidate that espouses an alternative policy, but that if that candidate fails to win then the opposition must rally behind the victorious candidate. This was not a concept that guided the opposition's behaviour at the time of the PLO elections. Then when it came time for PA presidential nominations, the opposition turned around and said that it was the leadership of the PLO that was the crucial post.

In short the opposition has assiduously sidelined itself politically. It may have continued to garner attention due to inter-factional rivalries; however, on core political issues it has marginalised itself. The opposition, including those factions that want to continue the resistance, had an opportunity to present itself as a political force with a platform and a popular following, and to take part in an electoral process that would legitimise it as part of an internationally recognised governing system. In this capacity, it would be in an even stronger position to sustain the resistance, because it would have parliamentary representatives that no one -- outside of Israel at least -- would be able to treat as "terrorists" because they would be working within an established order.

In addition, the opposition is neither unified nor clear in its position on the elections. Some factions say that they will vote but not take part in the nominations and campaigns, others that they will take part in both, and a third that it will take part in neither. Is this latter camp calling for a boycott? Who knows? More importantly, it is difficult to fathom the disparity. All Palestinian political forces are going to have to deal with the elected president of the PA. They are going to have to sit with him in negotiations over a ceasefire and on their relations with the security forces and they are going to press him with demands and protests. They will not be able to ignore him, which for all practical purposes boils down to recognising him and his office. So why not take part in the elections to this office and, in the process, field an alternative candidate and an alternative platform?

Some Palestinian opposition forces call themselves "democratic". One is hard put to perceive this trait in their political behaviour. Otherwise, they would do their democratic duty and field candidates, advocate platforms and campaign whenever circumstances permit, even under occupation, whether in elections to the PA, the PLO, municipal councils or student unions. The electoral process carries a strong element of the right to self- determination, a principle that is, by definition, the antithesis of colonialist occupation. Political forces may have political reasons for boycotting elections; in the event that the integrity of the electoral process is suspect, a call for a boycott is not only justifiable, it is a test of the party's commitment to democratic principles. However, it makes no sense whatsoever for a political party to neither call for a boycott nor to take part in the elections. This type of behaviour both marginalises the party as a political force and undermines democracy.

The opposition takes part in labour and student syndicate elections but not in the elections of the PLO leadership. Perhaps this is because it is still operating on the old premise that it has to demonstrate its power in the syndicates in order to prove itself viable at the leadership level. Today, however, the situation is different and more perilous. In abandoning the field of competition over the PA presidency the opposition factions have effectively legitimised prioritising regional over domestic considerations in the electoral process.

It is no secret that the way in which the PA candidate was nominated had nothing to do with his popularity and other such criteria according to which political parties normally choose candidates, and everything to do with keeping Fatah united and in power. It is also obvious that Fatah's choice of candidate was based on external factors. There is no Palestinian state yet. We are in the midst of negotiations and the process of building a state, on the one hand, and a liberation and resistance movement on the other. The Palestinian elections have been cast against a background in which regional and international factors are perceived to play an overwhelming role in setting the course for negotiations and shaping the so-called political process. This was the perception that governed those forces engaged in the negotiating process as they made the transition from Arafat's death to the nomination of the PLO Executive Committee chairman as his successor. The transition was so natural it brooked no discussion, not even within Fatah which refused to entertain so much as the idea of another contender whose supporters might have had something to say. If that silence suggests anything it is that there is a commonly held assumption that debate is incompatible with unity and that a multiplicity of candidates obviates the eventual convergence behind a single nominee.

Everything that is abnormal, such as the absence of discussion on electoral processes, seemed perfectly normal and even a source of pride. It affirms "fixed principles" they said. But the only fixed principle I can see is the insistence upon the unanimous support for a single and uncontested nominee. Everything else is in flux and not agreed upon, apart from the agreement not to discuss what has not yet been agreed. Perhaps this explains what is happening today in Palestine.

But there is another explanation, which is that political ideas or principles were not the issue to begin with. Any of the opponents of the camp championed by the current Executive Committee chief inside Fatah would have acted exactly as he did in Oslo, Aqaba and elsewhere if they had been in his place. The problem was that they were not in his place, which is where they wanted to be. The problem was a struggle over power and influence inside Fatah, which was expediently overcome by all in the interest of perpetuating their control of the PA, without which none of them would have power. There was no political discussion inside Fatah; there was posturing. And this applies to all the other factions.

The refusal of the opposition parties to overcome their rivalries and take a serious stab at nominating an alternative candidate for PA president confirms this. Even if the opposition refuses to recognise the PA, this stance does not preclude entering PA elections on an opposition ticket, one that might espouse, as an extreme example, dismantling the PA in order to form an alternative governing structure. However, the opposition did not do that; nor did it propose an alternative to the PA.

What it did do was make it easier for the PA to reject the notion of a unified national leadership. Why should those who demand a unified national leadership not take part in the elections? You can take part in elections and then refuse to take part in the government as a means of underscoring the need for a unified national leadership, especially if the polls return a high outcome in favour of a unified national leadership ticket. The elected leader of an established state may be able to ignore more than 40 per cent of the electorate but not so the elected leader of a people still in the process of a national liberation movement. It is this situation that makes it possible to translate unity into a clear and concrete demand.

Some might argue that in opposing or boycotting the elections the opposition is posing an alternative: the demand for a united leadership to replace the PA and a unified strategy for resistance outside the framework of the PA and the negotiating process, for example. However, what we see tells us something different. We see negotiations between the PA leadership and the factions over a truce, a ceasefire and collecting weapons in order to "give negotiations a chance" in exchange for the PA's commitment to adhere to "fixed principles" in the negotiations. Everyone knows that the PA's negotiating ceiling is drawn from Clinton's proposals. Ask them and they'll tell you. Perhaps this is what they mean by "fixed principle". Or perhaps what they mean by adhering to these principles is to suspend them as they focus on negotiations over a protracted interim period that provides for the creation of a Palestinian state on Gaza and 40 to 50 per cent of the West Bank because a lasting solution is impossible. How does the opposition intend to deal with these two likely scenarios: either the Clinton proposals (for which there is no Israeli partner at present) or a protracted interim phase? How do the candidates and the opposition stand on this? Why is there no discussion?

Is it not time for the opposition to form a unified strategy that can be put to Palestinian society in the elections -- or even without elections -- as an alternative to all these games and all this deafening silence surrounding them? I had hoped that the opposition's demand for legislative elections was a sign of a change in mentality rather than just a tactic or an indication that it was slow in grasping what was going on. Unfortunately, its attitudes towards the elections of the chairman of the PLO and the president of the PA put paid to this hope.

There is no inherent contradiction between resistance and politics. Anyone who has a strategy for resistance is presumed to have a political strategy as well. A political strategy is indispensable to a strategy for resistance, because a strategy for resistance entails identifying ways to sustain the resistance, to channel it towards desired ends and to maintain its vital connection with the people. In the Palestinian case it entails determining how to deal with the forthcoming PA which, following the elections, will be pressing for a ceasefire and an end to all armed activities among other demands. One would have presumed that such issues would have already been the subject of debate in the electoral campaigns.

So what is there to talk about in the current electoral campaigns? After all, everyone vows to cling to fixed principles, everyone supports reform and democracy, and everyone supports the right to return. That is what everyone says, but no one believes this. Not that this matters to the rival parties, because judging by the way they are behaving elections to them mean obtaining the public's rubber stamp for a leadership that was so called because it appears to be the only regionally acceptable possibility. Herein resides the secret behind that rosy gloss that is being spray painted over the region. Suddenly we find ourselves awash in endless acclaim for the many virtues of this leadership and rosy forecasts of all the good that this leadership will bring to Palestinian society and the progress it can make towards peace. The purpose of all this is to raise our expectations and to trap the leadership in these expectations. For the moment it is being asked to secure a ceasefire in exchange for help in improving the quality of life for the Palestinian people. Soon it will be asked to agree to one of the two scenarios mentioned above.

Readers will no doubt recall that whenever anyone criticised the Palestinian leadership under Arafat he was assailed from all sides by the absurd question, but, do you have an alternative to this leadership? Not every critic has to have an alternative. However, the difference between elections and other channels for airing opinions is that a party or candidate that intends to field itself in elections must be prepared to answer the question, "What alternative do you have to offer?" It is election time in Palestine. If anyone has anything to say about participating or boycotting the elections, they should get it off their chest now, and those opposed to the current process should formulate their alternative strategy in a language that everyone can understand. In his introduction to Das Kapital, Karl Marx cited a tale from ancient Greek lore in which an Athenian boasted to his friends that while in Rhodes he had leapt an incredible distance, to which a member of his audience rejoined: "Here is Rhodes. Jump here!"

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