assesses the significance of Palestinian presidential elections
The Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem will, on 9 January, elect the second president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), ending the process of power transfer that began with the death of Yasser Arafat.
The election has been the focus not only of a great deal of diplomatic and media attention from the international community but also from ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
The interests foregrounded by the Palestinian presidential election are multiple, though not necessarily contradictory. While one should not underestimate the significance of the Palestinian presidential elections, neither should one overstate their importance.
Certainly they mark a step towards democracy. They are, too, part of the reforms imposed on the PA within the framework of the roadmap. The PA worked on compiling electoral rolls between 4 August and 13 October, 2004 in preparation for municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections. The number of registered voters Palestinians reached 1,092,856, accounting for an estimated 67 per cent of those eligible to vote. Out of this figure 46 per cent are aged between 17 and 30 and 46.44 per cent are women.
It is difficult, though, to conceive of a democratic process occurring under occupation. And though the Israeli army is expected to be withdrawn from West Bank towns for at least 72 hours one cannot help but question whether this is sufficient to allow for an unhampered process.
The election of a partner for peace is, Israel regularly states, a priority. Yet a partner -- the PLO -- already exists. It is the PLO that, as a subject of international law, is able to negotiate and to sign international treaties. The PA is a pure administrative authority, created following Oslo, with limited competence in time (the interim period and space, the autonomous territories, Zone A). The interim period ended in 1999 and most of the autonomous territories were re-occupied by Israel after the second Intifada. Since then the PA has been unable to impose order or the rule of law.
The centre of Palestinian political gravity is, however, slipping from the PLO to the PA. Simultaneously a transition has occurred away from a cause concerned with liberation and towards a quasi-state that administers the population of occupied territories. The Palestinian cause, which once revolved around the rights of a people, the majority in Diaspora, to self-determination has increasingly been reduced to the question of territory and/or autonomy.
The elections are of concern only to Palestinians living in the occupied territories, the 2,421,491 residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and 1,406,423 residents in the Gaza Strip. Other Palestinians -- of the total number of Palestinian refugees registered by the UNRWA only 38 per cent live in the occupied territories -- are not directly concerned.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad asked their supporters to register on electoral rolls but then decided to limit their participation to municipal elections. The two movements, relatively recent presences in the occupied territories, are represented in neither the PA nor the PLO.
Inter-Palestinian dialogue is thus essential, with or without elections. Palestinians must avoid civil war at all costs, and they must put an end to the suicide attacks targeting Israeli civilians practised by certain Palestinian groups.
There are seven candidates for the PA presidency, though possible scenarios can be reduced to two. The choice is between Abu Mazen and somebody else, i.e. Palestinians must choose between the unity of the two institutions representing Palestinians, the PLO and the PA, or they can opt for their separation. In both cases the PLO is both the winner and the loser. Either it loses popular support though its institutions enhance their role and their independence, or it wins popular confirmation and then accelerates the transfer of its prerogatives to the PA.
After the withdrawal of the candidacy of Marwan Barghouti, and thanks to the boycott of Hamas, an Abu Mazen victory is seen as a foregone conclusion. (Mustafa Barghouti is a serious contender but he lacks the support of a political party). The presidential elections seem to have become a plebiscite, a confirmation of a choice already made. In other words, the Palestinians are being invited to make a sensible choice; they are "free" to choose Abu Mazen, the Fatah and PLO candidate, the partner for peace and hero of the reforms.
The new Palestinian leadership, though, will face a three-pronged challenge -- that of democracy, peace and national construction. The success of these three processes depends on their being reconciled one to the others. The failure of a single of the three processes means the failure of them all.
Several commentators have made reference to Max Weber's concept of the three phases of leadership, traditional, charismatic and institutional. According to them the traditional leadership is that of Palestinians before 1948; the charismatic leadership died on 11 November, 2004. The Palestinians are now preparing for a new phase of institutional leadership.
Optimism was expressed in several quarters following the death of Yasser Arafat, sometimes with unseemly haste. Others prefer not to delude themselves since, for them, the Palestinians do not need more leaders or more elections. Rather, they need freedom and hope. Will the presidential elections of 9 January afford such hope? Only the future will tell.
* The writer is a Palestinian researcher based in France.