Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2005
Issue No. 773
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Voting for freedom

As the Palestinians prepare to hold new legislative elections in January, the ongoing occupation and much-needed internal reform within Fatah emerge as top issues on the electoral agenda. Erica Silverman and Khaled Amayreh report from Gaza and the West Bank

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Palestinian youths throw stones at Israeli army vehicles during clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus

As the 25 January parliamentary elections approach and ushers a new era of competitive partisan politics, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) is about to undergo systemic change after nearly a decade of single party domination by the ruling Fatah Party. Fatah remains the most popular faction, although Hamas's new-found political aspirations have changed the dynamics of the political arena. Meanwhile independent candidates that have allied to form independent party lists present an alternative for voters from the polarised Fatah and Hamas.

Fighting corruption is a top issue concerning voters, many of whom are disenchanted with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and their perceived lack of transparency. While the Fatah leadership and parliamentary candidates are trying to re- organise and seek a new image, Hamas are trying to capitalise on their group's proven accountability, demonstrated by their local leaders who have already taken office, and their adherence to Islamic principles. Lawlessness and insecurity are also key issues, demonstrating that voters' priorities extend beyond the boundaries of questions pertaining to the Israeli occupation.

As for the newly adopted reforms to the Palestinian electoral process, a mixed electoral system combines the majority system (districts) and proportional representation system (lists), and divides the 132 seats of the PLC equally between the two. The electorate has been struggling to understand the new system, with reserved seats for Christian and female representatives. As things stand, there are five incumbent female PLC members.

The popular and savvy PA Civil Affairs Minster Mohamed Dahlan is Fatah's star candidate, running for a district seat in his hometown Khan Yunis, as well as chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. The internal power struggle between the older and newer generations within Fatah surfaced in the controversy surrounding their primary elections. The "new guard", which includes figures such as jailed leader and candidate Marwan Barghouti, was pushing for democratic primaries, while the "old guard" was accused of imposing their candidates on the list. The Fatah Central Committee did not commit itself to using the results of the primaries to formulate the final list.

On Monday masked members of the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades -- which originated as an offshoot of the ruling Fatah Party -- stormed CEC offices in northern Gaza and Deir Al-Balah to protest against the leadership's policy of assignment of candidates to the list.

As things stand, Fatah is expected to garner at least 40 per cent of the vote, while an estimated 30 per cent will go to Hamas and about 12 per cent to independents, according to recent opinion polls. Candidate registration officially came to a close on 14 December. Final lists will be published on 2 January, marking the start of the official electoral campaign.

Hamas had announced its intention to participate in the elections back in March 2005, and have made the necessary transformations to appear as a mainstream political party, running new, moderate leaders such as Ghazi Hamad, editor-in chief of Al-Resalah newspaper run by Hamas supporters, in the southern Rafah district. Senior leader Mahmoud Zahar, whom 20 per cent of respondents to a recent opinion poll said they would like to see as the next prime minister, is also running, along with young spokesperson Mushir Al-Masri. All three are from the Gaza Strip. Jailed Hamas leader Hassan Youssef will also make a bid.

Hamas, which advocates violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, is running a total of 66 candidates, including one Christian and three women. Part of the campaign is to explain to voters why "female participation is essential... and to explain why Hamas has decided to adopt the democratic process," Hamad told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Hamas leader Rasha Al-Rantisi, widow of the late Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi has decided not to run, although she will serve as a campaign manager for other candidates. Hamas conducted organised primaries, using a ranking system based on qualifications to select their candidates, according to Hamad.

Islamic Jihad, which also advocates resistance to Israel, has decided to boycott the elections.

Mustafa Barghouti, the former presidential candidate who received nearly 20 per cent of the vote, has formed an independent list entitled "Independent Palestine", which includes about 50 candidates. He has recruited a number of respected professionals and intellectuals, including Salam Fayad, former finance minister and World Bank official, Hanan Ashrawi, former minister and rights activist, and former minister Yasser Abd Rabbo.

"We represent the silent majority. The party insists on freedom from occupation through a non-violent mass popular struggle, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state," Barghouti told the Weekly.

This new front will attempt to attract voters disillusioned with Fatah, and those who do not support Hamas's Islamist project. Nevertheless, recent polls find that many Palestinians continue to advocate resistance against Israel, thus pushing more voters towards electing Hamas candidates. "Thirty- three per cent of respondents support launching armed operations from the Gaza Strip if Israel keeps its control over the border crossings," according to a poll conducted by An- Najah University in Nablus, West Bank.

Other factors also render Hamas candidates a more attractive option for Palestinian voters. Independent Palestine "will be liberal and will be anti-corruption, and that is what's attracting people to Hamas," said Ali Jarbawi, a commentator and political science professor at Bir Zeit University, also running on the list.

And while the once-strong Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is struggling to redefine itself, factions such as Fida, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the People's Party appear to be on their way out, each garnering less that 1.5 per cent of voter support in preliminary polls.

Once again Palestinians are faced with the formidable challenge of conducting free and fair elections under the confines of Israeli occupation. The restriction of movement was a serious obstacle to the presidential elections, for which there were only seven candidates. Now, with hundreds of candidates trying to campaign, an estimated 700 barriers and checkpoints will most definitely pose insurmountable problems.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is preparing for the organisation of legislative elections, scheduled for 25 January, while putting up an obviously flawed veneer that the long-awaited polls will proceed unhindered.

The various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah, have already finalised their respective lists, as has a regime of rules and regulations governing the voting process. Likewise, voter registration files are also ready, thus calming tensions resulting from problems pertaining to voter eligibility, which marred the presidential elections last year. PA officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei continue to assert their commitment to holding the elections on time.

However, below the surface an increasing number of problems are steadily emerging, suggesting that the elections may not take place on the designated date. To begin with, Fatah, the de facto governing party of the PA, is undergoing a process a senior Fatah official in Hebron likens to a "difficult and protracted labour".

This process is rooted in the more-or-less authoritarian decision-making process within the PA. During former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's time, there was a tendency within political circles to simply follow this authoritarian modus operandi because of Arafat's firm hold over power, his historical significance and because of his absolute control over the political reins in Palestinian affairs.

Furthermore, until the take-over by Abbas, Fatah still continued to be perceived as the liberation movement it had started as, and Fatah's members and supporters viewed themselves as soldiers who ought to heed orders, not argue with their superiors and leaders. But ever since the mysterious death of Arafat last year, all this has changed. Many, if not most, of Fatah's regional leaders and activists are no longer willing to play the role of yes-men.

Such a lack of obvious leadership presupposed an obvious problem, and Fatah is rapidly growing into something of a supermarket of sometimes conflicting ideas. In a bid to overcome this problem, Fatah decided to hold internal elections, or primaries, to elect its candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections. However, instead of solving the problem democratically, the elections were marred with widespread irregularities, fraud, vote-rigging and chaos, prompting the national PA Fatah leadership, including Abbas, to render the primaries "just one factor in determining the names of candidates," instead of the deciding factor.

Abbas's decision to play the most diplomatic card at his disposal was the result of his realisation that he would be damned if he accepted the results of the primaries outright, and damned if he didn't. For if he did, he would alienate wide segments of the Fatah rank-and-file who were convinced that the elections were a farce and in no way reflected the collective will of the movement. And if he did not, he would similarly alienate the announced winners and their respective supporters and clans.

Abbas was due to release the names of Fatah's candidates by Wednesday, the deadline for submitting candidates and electoral lists. However, according to reliable Fatah sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, Abbas was likely to drop many of the winners in the primaries from the lists altogether, and replace them with well-known figures from the movement's old guard, such as Ahmed Qurei, Nabil Shaath and Abbas Zaki. Such a decision could end up generating significant disenchantment, and even bitterness, among tens of thousands of traditional Fatah supporters, who look like they want to give new life to the movement's national leadership.

Meanwhile other problems haunt the ageing movement, among which is the prospect of real disintegration caused by a growing sense of division. There are already strong warnings that regional Fatah leaders dropped from the candidate lists may either form alternative lists to contest the election or boycott the polls altogether. Either scenario would disperse votes that, in ordinary circumstances, would go to the Fatah candidates. There are indications that this may well happen if the movement fails to come up with a formula that would satisfy everyone -- and such a formula appears to be virtually impossible to create at this late stage.

And the signs of a split are already appearing. This week, former Preventive Security Chief in the West Bank Jebril Rajoub lashed at those "who want to be candidates but lack a revolutionary record." In Dura, in the southern West Bank, suspected Fatah activists circulated leaflets castigating former PA Minister of Information Nabil Amr for alleged contacts with the CIA and the American Jewish lobby. Amr dismissed the leaflet as "cheep electioneering". The popular imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti reportedly warned that he would quit Fatah if the PA leadership fails to respect the choice of the people. Barghouti received the highest number of votes in Fatah's primaries in Ramallah three weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the organisation of elections in East Jerusalem could prove to be the make-or- break issue determining the fate of the entire electoral process. This week, Qurei warned that the legislative elections depended on Israel's willingness to allow elections in East Jerusalem, the envisaged capital of a prospective Palestinian state. Israel, which is itself facing the travails of a crucial election, is unlikely to grant the Palestinian candidates' need by allowing campaigning and voting to take place in what it considers to be its "united and undivided capital". Indeed, any concession by the Israeli government in this regard would be used as an effective propaganda weapon against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by his political rivals, such as Likud and other far-right parties.

In theory, the PA could reach a compromise on this issue whereby voting is conducted through the post, as was the case in the 1995 legislative elections. However, the PA is most likely to reject such a prospect, if only as a pretext to postpone or cancel the elections. The postponement or cancellation of the elections would anger Fatah's main contender Hamas, the Islamic resistance group, which would likely react by revoking the de facto tahdia, or ceasefire with Israel.

In any case, Hamas Politburo Chief Khaled Mashaal has warned that the tahdia will not be renewed beyond this year. However, Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have hastened to clarify Mashaal's remarks, saying that the movement would abide by the ceasefire as long as Israel reciprocated and the PA adhered to the Cairo Agreement reached earlier this year. The agreement stipulated that the PA would enable the organisation of parliamentary elections in the occupied territories if Hamas and other Palestinian factions abided by the conditions of a ceasefire with Israel.

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