Palestinians: Ballot boxing

Almost all PA candidates have placed financial corruption and nepotism at the top of their platforms.

barghouti poster298 88ap (photo credit: AP)
barghouti poster298 88ap
(photo credit: AP)
Even the stone lions on Manarah Square in downtown Ramallah have been "recruited" to the election campaign for next Wednesday's parliamentary vote in the Palestinian Authority. Large posters of dozens of candidates and lists are covering the statues, and plastered all over facades of surrounding buildings and shops. It's difficult these days to travel through any of the streets of the city without running into an election poster or banner. Posters of shaheeds [martyrs] and anti-Israel graffiti that once used to decorate the walls of Ramallah have virtually disappeared. The large number of election posters is an indication of the enormous interest the Palestinians are showing in this vote. Hundreds of candidates from all walks of life are running both as independents and as representatives of various political groups. They include lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, wanted gunmen, university teachers, housewives, physicians, farmers and many others. Printing houses have doubled their staff and are working round-the-clock to satisfy their ambitious clientele. Barring last-minute changes, more than one million Palestinians are expected to choose 132 candidates for the Palestinian Legislative Council. This will be the second election of its kind since the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority over a decade ago. Last year the Palestinians did vote in presidential elections, but it was nothing similar to this campaign. Then, most Palestinians were convinced that Mahmoud Abbas would win anyway, because he enjoyed the backing of the international community, first and foremost among it the US. Moreover, Abbas back then did not face a real challenge from any of the rival candidates. Most importantly, Hamas did not participate in the presidential election because of the uncertainty that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the death of Yasser Arafat. But now the situation has changed. The images of two dead "symbols" are dominant in the parliamentary election campaign - slain Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin and Yasser Arafat. Yassin's image is being used only by Hamas's Reform and Change List to attract as many voters as possible. Arafat, on the other hand, is starring not only in the election campaign of his ruling Fatah Party, but in those of scores of candidates who believe that a picture with Arafat is worth many votes. Supporters of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is running at the head of the Fatah list, have printed tens of thousands of posters of Arafat holding a picture of a handcuffed Barghouti being escorted to a court in Tel Aviv. The picture of Arafat was taken two years ago during a rally in the "presidential" Mukata compound in solidarity with Barghouti. "Arafat Has Voted For Marwan, So Who Will You Vote For?" reads the caption. THE COMPETITION between the supporters of Arafat and Yassin is a microcosm of the real battle that has been waging for weeks between Fatah and Hamas. The question many Palestinians are asking today is not whether Hamas will enter the parliament, but how many seats its representatives will occupy. Public opinion polls predict it could win up to 40 percent of the votes, turning the Islamic movement into a major player in future decision-making. Hamas leaders are much more optimistic. They expect to win more than 50% of the votes "if the elections are held in a free and democratic atmosphere." Fatah, which has dominated the Palestinian political scene for four decades, is already finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that it might no longer maintain its position as the largest and most popular faction. Some Fatah leaders and candidates have even begun issuing threats to resort to violence to prevent a Hamas victory. One Fatah candidate, Hatem Abdel Kader, said his party would use "thugs and shoes" to foil Hamas's attempt to take over the PA. Fatah militiamen in various parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been issuing similar threats. For many Palestinians, the upcoming elections are crucial because, for the first time, they offer an opportunity for regime change or, as some point it, "a chance to punish our corrupt leaders." These are the first elections in the post-Arafat era that are contested by major opposition groups such as Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These groups see Arafat's absence from the scene as a positive development that provides an appropriate atmosphere for holding free elections. Representatives of these groups say they would not have run in the elections had Arafat still been alive "because he would not have allowed a free and democratic" vote. IN THE first and last parliamentary elections in 1996, which were hailed by the international community as fair and democratic, Arafat and his aides handpicked most of the candidates and decided who could run and who couldn't. The Palestinian security forces were instructed to vote only for Arafat's loyalists, and PA civil servants were told they would lose their jobs if they did not cast their ballots for the chosen candidates. When the results were announced, Arafat replaced some of the winners with his own candidates. Arafat's departure has considerably weakened Fatah, which is now witnessing a bitter power struggle between representatives of the Old Guard and the Young Guard. The infighting in Fatah is seen by Hamas and other opposition groups as a golden opportunity to try to end the decades-old "hegemony and monopoly" of the corruption-tainted ruling party. That's why this election campaign has focused largely on internal issues such as corruption and good governance. Almost all the candidates, including Fatah representatives, have placed financial corruption and nepotism at the top of their platforms. Issues relating to Israel and the peace process have been overshadowed by the strong desire for the creation of an accountable and "clean" regime. The campaign has highlighted the fact that a growing number of Palestinians realize that, without regime change, there can be no hope for a better future. What is evident, however, is that the Palestinian political scene will never look the same after January 25. Many candidates pointout that this day will mark the beginning of a revolution against corrupt and unreliable old-timers who have failed their people for decades.