A vote for change
Palestinians go to the polls in the hope that their lives will change for the better, writes Graham Usher in Gaza City
A 1.4 million electorate, 650 international observers, 400-plus candidates, 13,000 uniformed police and one monumental contest -- Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories participated yesterday in their most significant suffrage since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994.
As the polls opened early Wednesday queues were forming outside several stations in Gaza City and, according to radio reports, across the West Bank. The Palestinians' second parliamentary elections in a decade were "a decisive step towards independence," PA president Mahmoud Abbas told his people on Tuesday. "Go out and elect a deserving leadership."
Few Palestinians have any illusions that they are anywhere near independence or that casting a ballot will change by one iota a military occupation that fundamentally controls their lives. But they are convinced they can elect a better, "deserving" leadership to improve the way they are governed and therefore their ability to resist the occupier.
"In 1996 the elections were issue-centred -- the central slogans were Jerusalem, independence and statehood," says Palestinian analyst Talal Aukal. "These elections have been people-centred -- they are about services, living conditions and governmental corruption".
The other, colossal difference between this and the earlier polls is that there are now two movements competing for the mantle of leadership and not, as in 1996, one. It is this that gives the campaign its edge -- domestically, regionally and internationally.
According to polls released four days before the vote, Fatah was leading Hamas by 42 to 35 per cent in the national party list, which comprises 66 of the parliament's 132 seats. But it is going to be the PA's 16 electoral districts -- where Hamas is united and Fatah fragmented -- that will more likely decide the contest.
In Gaza the same polls show Hamas candidates winning Gaza City, northern Gaza and perhaps Khan Yunis, the home base of Fatah's most conspicuous Gaza contender, Mohamed Dahlan. Hamas is also expected to win Hebron in the West Bank, and perhaps Nablus. If these projections are anywhere near the mark, the next parliament may not be "won" by either Hamas or Fatah; it will be hung between them, with other parties holding the balance.
The greatest fear Palestinians have is that violence will mar the poll. Until Tuesday the auguries had been good, with few electoral infractions reported and the factions -- and their allied militias -- vowing not to bare arms near polling stations. But then came Tuesday. As so often in recent Palestinian history the cleavage was not between Hamas and Fatah, but within Fatah.
Ahmed Hassouna, a campaign staffer working for Fatah's official district candidate for Nablus Ghassan Shakaa, left his home with a pistol to prevent gunmen tearing down posters of his man. He was shot dead. The gunmen allegedly were linked to one of Fatah's "independent" candidates. The struggle between Shakaa and rival Fatah militias has been the bane of the city's life in recent years. Many hoped it was over. Shakaa was confident he would win Nablus "without violence". He is less confident now.
The greatest question thrown up by the elections is the extent to which Hamas will break Fatah's hegemony of Palestinian politics, and whether this will strengthen the PA, as Hamas claims, or weaken it, as Fatah charges.
Israel says it will have no truck with a PA that has Hamas as a "partner", at least until the latter renounces armed struggle and recognises the Jewish state. The Americans have already demonstrated their commitment to have Hamas in the PA parliament and perhaps in a ministry or two but draws the line at a Hamas government, and for the same reasons. Hamas says any vote it receives is a mandate for the "resistance" while signalling that it can "negotiate practical arrangements with Israelis but not strategic issues," says Hamas national candidate Said Siam.
The post-election negotiation between these positions will be the defining feature of the next period and will probably decide whether PA-Israel relations are heading for continued impasse or political progress. It is already clear that all sides will have to move if the knot is to be untied.
As for greatest challenges facing the next PA government, these are manifold. In the West Bank it is to devise strategies that can blunt and reverse an annexation policy that is unilaterally determining the future borders of the Israeli state. In Gaza the challenge can be summarised by three facts and one solution, says Palestinian analyst Salah Abdul-Shafi.
"One, that one in every two Palestinians in Gaza is jobless; two, 70 per cent of all families in Gaza live beneath a poverty line of two dollars per person a day; and, three, because Israel determines our custom duties Palestinians in Gaza pay the same prices as Israelis in Tel Aviv, but with one difference -- Israelis on average earn 22 times more than we do."
The solution is "jobs", he says, and the Palestinian economy's absolute dependence on Israel and the world to generate them.
Finally these elections will decide whether the next PA will be instrumental for Abbas's policies or whether it will continue to act as his greatest saboteur. Whatever the disappointment Palestinians have in his leadership, the vast majority concur with his call for "one law, one authority and one gun". This is not because they want to abandon the resistance to occupation. Most do not. It is rather that they want an end to the randomness of PA rule and the power of militias to impose their factional, and sometimes personal, agendas over all others. This must change, says Aukal. He believes it will.
"There will be an improvement in the internal security situation," he says. "Most of the factions which at one time or another defied the PA will now be in government, and bear responsibility for any chaos."
This perhaps explains why Palestinians voted yesterday in a kind of subdued hope. Subdued because they know their most basic needs could barely be met by a state, let alone an authority that commands none of the powers of sovereignty. But hope because after five years of siege, overpowering Israeli violence and an increasingly directionless armed revolt Palestinians are finally having a say in their struggle. That say can be expressed in one word, says Aukal.
"Change... in the last few years Palestinians have lost the initiative and have suffered multiple crises because of it. The elections allow us to regain the initiative or at least start to regain the initiative. They are one of the few doors we can open."