Fatah comes to terms
Fatah promises to study the Palestinian election results and learn from them, but will the movement join Hamas in a national unity government? Erica Silverman reviews events from Gaza City
"President Abbas was elected by 62 per cent of the voters, and he will not resign because 62 demonstrators are asking him to resign; he will continue as president," announced Palestinian Authority (PA) Information Minister Nabil Shaath during a press conference on Sunday in Gaza City. Angry Fatah supporters have been protesting throughout the city, demanding a change in leadership and conduct within the movement, briefly storming the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) four times recently and demonstrating outside Abbas' residence.
Fatah paid at the polls for their history of ineptitude and corruption, but there is no doubt that Hamas' massive "get out the vote" drive contributed to their unanticipated success. On election day, polling centres across Gaza were manned by well organised teams of Hamas campaign workers -- mostly young adults articulating a unified message -- while swarms of Fatah youth haphazardly crowded the entranceways. Fatah began their campaign late, divided, and confused, while Hamas waged a well- orchestrated, professional campaign that translated into hard votes.
Security was the issue on the forefront of Gazans' minds as they headed to the polls. Judging from the lawlessness and chaos plaguing the streets, voters decided Fatah did not deserve "a second chance," and that Hamas was perhaps better equipped to run the security services than Fatah. "Fatah has done a great deal of damage to itself and to us," asserted social and political analyst Eyad Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme that operates nine clinics in Gaza.
The resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and his cabinet marks the beginning of a period of upheaval and finger pointing within the Fatah movement. For its part, it seems that Hamas will have the wisdom to refrain from punishing the Fatah leadership for their mistakes as promised during their campaign. Such a move would hinder possibilities for the national coalition government between Hamas and Fatah.
After several meetings with President Abbas and other senior Fatah officials, Shaath told Al-Ahram Weekly that Fatah's first objective is to "reconstruct and reorganise" the movement, and second to "strengthen the presidency, create a shadow government, and forge a leadership from the opposition faction within the parliament."
Shaath confirmed that Hamas, as the majority party of the PLC, would supervise the ministries and determine their leadership. According to the constitution, President Abbas is the commander-in-chief of the security and police forces, although Hamas will also be responsible for maintaining public order and internal security through its control of the Ministry of Interior. According to the constitution, the new prime minister will be appointed by President Abbas and then ratified by the newly elected PLC.
The immediate reason for Fatah's loss: too many candidates on the ballot, explained Shaath. In total, 150 Fatah members campaigned in the elections, and 78 actually ran. The majority of candidates withdrew right before elections day though their names remained on ballots. Hence, the Fatah vote was fragmented.
Indeed, Fatah argues that 35 per cent of Fatah votes were wasted in Gaza by Fatah leaders who ran as independent candidates. There were 49 candidates who ran in the Gaza district: five from Hamas, eight from Fatah, and 30 independents. According to a Fatah political strategist in Gaza City, 28 of the 30 independents were Fatah affiliated. Independents like Marwan Kanafani, Musbah Saqr and Hassan Al-Kashif won a significant number of votes, but failed to take a seat.
Fatah believes these candidates, who knew they would not garner enough votes to win, should have withdrawn and backed the party. For example, independent candidate Mohamed Madi from Fatah, garnered 15,000 Gaza votes, yet failed to win a seat. In Khan Younis, Civil Affairs Minister Mohamed Dhalan flexed his political muscles and persuaded Fatah candidates who could not win to drop out of the race for the sake of the party. This week six members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council were dismissed for running as independents.
"Voters shifted their loyalties to Hamas since there was no change of leadership within the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Fatah movement, and we lack a strong base of local leadership, unlike Hamas," explained one Fatah strategist who is working rapidly to redefine the party. "Three-fourths of Fatah supporters go to the mosque, but we did not use the mosque to promote our platform," he continued, promising to do so in the future and attributing Fatah's loss to Islam's increased popularity amongst Gazans since the outbreak of Al-Aqsa Intifada.
"Fatah had their chance and now we want Hamas," stated a 48-year old teacher from Nuseirat who defected from Fatah, requesting that his name be withheld. Fatah supporters have charged that male Hamas voters exerted undo pressure on women in their families to vote the same; however, female Hamas supporters proved to be a vocal part of Hamas' campaign.
On Sunday the Central Elections Commission verified the results of the preliminary count, awarding Fatah two extra seats -- one in the party lists and one in the district of Khan Younis. The final result: Hamas 74 seats, Fatah 45.
The electoral process is still new to Palestinians, and Hamas worked diligently, employing droves of youth to distribute literature educating supporters as to how they should vote. Fatah supporters did not receive the same crash course, and the majority of the improperly cast votes, or "false papers," belonged to Fatah, according to one Fatah strategist. "The ballots have a box checked for Fatah and Hamas is crossed out," he lamented.
Fatah's less than democratic primaries proved to be a source of discord throughout the entire electoral process. The parties division into two lists, followed by the wave of violence committed by members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, cost Fatah votes as the security crisis exacerbated in Gaza. Hamas conducted well- organised primaries. Members voted for nominees in each local "Shura Council" according to a detailed ranking system including criteria such as education and IT skills, and were later approved as candidates by the senior "Shura Council," explained Ghazi Hamad, editor-in- chief of Al-Resalah newspaper run by Hamas.
"We are pouring over the results and we will reengineer Fatah; we will build a stronger organisation on a grassroots level," asserted the Fatah strategist. According to the Cairo agreement, the faction that won the majority of the PLC vote for the party lists is afforded greater decision making power within the PLO. Hamas won 29 seats from the list, and Fatah 28. Fatah analysts are looking to justify winning one more seat to give them leverage, and hope to form a coalition with another smaller faction to retain control of the PLO.
Hamas is struggling to determine its style of governance, and how it will manage the responsibilities formerly borne by Fatah under its current policies toward Israel. On Monday, the Quartet (the EU, US, UN, and Russia) "concluded that it was inevitable that future assistance to any new government would be reviewed by donors against that government's commitment to the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations," read a statement by the grouping. Hamas rejected such conditions, saying it was up to Israel to end its occupation.
Abbas has appealed to foreign donors not to cut vital aid. Abbas stressed during talks in Ramallah with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Palestinians under his leadership remain committed to peaceful negotiations and all agreements with Israel.
Karni, Gaza's only commercial crossing has been sealed since 15 January. The Strip has about four to five weeks from the time of closure before a real humanitarian crisis ensues. For now, dairy products and fruit are scarce and the psychological pressure of refusing to negotiate with Israel is looming. This week, 150,000 PA employees will be looking for their paychecks; thus far Israel has halted the monthly transfer of the $55 million in taxes and customs to the PA, necessary to fulfil their obligations, as a result of Hamas' victory.
Fatah has not ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition government with Hamas in the PLC, although Shaath asserted, "Democratically it is not necessary, we need some time to restructure." President Mahmoud Abbas has four weeks from the election to form a new cabinet. Shaath asserted that President Abbas and Khaled Mashal are in close communication to discuss how to share authority.
The majority of Palestinians are welcoming competitive, partisan politics.
Fatah is exploring the longer-term reasons for their loss. When asked to explain Fatah's new political strategy, Shaath replied, "That is exactly what we are studying right now ... we are going to a National Congress soon to elect a new Central Committee and a New Revolutionary Council."