What has been expected for some time has finally materialized. The leading Palestinian national movement, Fatah, is coming of age as a political party rather than a national movement.
The on-again, off-again Fatah primaries have revealed the movement's chaos in the aftermath both of the loss of its historic leader and the long-overdue convening of the sixth general assembly.
While Palestine has witnessed presidential elections and, very belatedly, municipal elections, neither do as much to revive the blood of the body politic as parliamentary elections. The legislative elections due late in January will be only the second such balloting in Palestine's history. The present parliamentarians were elected 10 years ago for what was expected to be a four-year term ending in 2000 with the declaration of the Palestinian state.
The upcoming parliamentary elections introduced a much-needed reform process by raising the prominence of party lists, which will receive half of the legislative council's 132 seats (compared to the 88 seats chosen only on the basis of districts). District-based elections played into the hands of local and tribal formulations, often forcing national movements to compromise with local leaders.
CHANGING the rules of the game as well as various security and political developments have made even the anti-Oslo Hamas movement decide to participate in the upcoming elections. Hassan Yousef, one of Hamas's leaders in the Ramallah area, told me that the movement will field a pure Hamas list for the proportional national vote, while making coalitions with others (including Christian candidates) for the district-based votes.
Revolutionary movements are not known for changing leaders or for holding elections but the unique situation that Palestinians find themselves these days makes it mandatory for all to take part in the process.
For the Fatah movement, this is a major change. Ever since its establishment in 1965 this national liberation movement has avoided being dragged into any political or ideological framework. Fatah leader Yasser Arafat often became very angry when anyone suggested that the movement change into a political party.
But with Arafat gone and the movement in a long hibernation, the need for a mechanism to decide on the parties' candidates became necessary. Copying the example of the Israelis, Fatah young leaders suggested that the movement's candidates must be decided by primaries.
Few had any idea what primaries really meant, and which of the many types of primary system should be employed. Will the public at large, for example, be allowed to vote in the primaries, or will they be limited to party members? How are party members decided for a movement that until recently was a clandestine one?
And even though after the Oslo process most Fatah members came out publicly, the Aksa Intifada and the formation of the clandestine Aksa Brigades made the idea of deciding on membership quite difficult.
SINCE FATAH has not been a card-carrying party, the question of membership did not come up. For a long time Palestinians joked that anyone who doesn't belong to any particular faction is considered a Fatah supporter.
Such a laissez-faire approach, of course, does not work when one has to conduct primaries. At the same time, any party wishing to do well in a popular election will want to ensure that as many voters as possible join the party.
In the end a decision was made to limit candidacy to those who have been active in the movement for over 10 years.
Discipline was another problem. In past elections a number of Fatah activists won after having decided to run outside the movement once they realized they would not be on the official list. As a result the Fatah leadership resolved that any person who signs up for the movement/party as a candidate will be permanently removed from the party if he or she decides to run outside the list after losing in the primaries.
Many decisions were, of course, left to the Central Committee of Fatah, which has only 15 members left alive. An internal decision was also made that any Central Committee member who decides to run in the primaries will be prevented from participating in any decision regarding the final list.
Once the primaries took place many unforeseen problems occurred, the most difficult of which was the bullying practiced in order to change the roster, and the violence that took place within the internal elections process.
The Fatah movement is clearly moving closer and closer toward becoming a regular political party. The birth pains experienced in the weeks preceding the creation of a final Fatah list will be a deciding factor in how this revolutionary movement will behave as it becomes a true political party; and, therefore, how the leadership of the Palestinian people will be shaped.
The writer is a Palestinian journalist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.