Arab localities get new faces, though voting patterns largely traditional

Many supporters congratulate Sakhnin Mayor-elect Mazen Ghnaim, ex-chairman of city's soccer club.

East Jerusalem Arabs vote (photo credit: Channel 1 [file])
East Jerusalem Arabs vote
(photo credit: Channel 1 [file])
The celebration outside Sakhnin Mayor-elect Mazen Ghnaim's house on Wednesday seemed appropriate for a soccer victory as much as a political one. Traffic was backed up for kilometers and horns blared loud and long as processions of cars drove by and hundreds of supporters came to congratulate the ex-chairman of the Bnei Sakhnin soccer club. Ghnaim, who is a member of the Arab nationalist party Balad, but who ran on a joint list with two other parties, garnered nearly 60 percent of the vote to beat incumbent Mayor Muhammad Bashir of Hadash - ending the communist party's decade-long reign in the city. "It's a historic win because I've never served as a city council member or as mayor," Ghnaim, 50, said while sitting under a large tent full of male supporters. "It sends a clear message that whoever gives and serves the city loyally, people give back to him... People haven't forgotten that I've given what I can from an athletic perspective and from a social perspective." There is no doubt that being an athletic icon has boosted his popularity. Ghnaim, a former soccer player, helped transform Bnei Sakhnin - the most successful Arab club in Israel's history - from a fourth-tier league to the Premier League. "Through soccer, the whole Arab sector, not only Sakhnin, knows who Mazen is, how he works and what his abilities are," said Dr. Abu Saleh Ahmed, a dentist in Sakhnin who came to congratulate Ghnaim. "He is a successful man who knows how to manage things." "For Balad, it's a very important event that points out that it still exists, that it can recuperate" following the departure of former MK and Balad leader Azmi Bishara from Israel, "that it has something to say in local politics," said Mohanad Mustafa, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Haifa and a researcher at the Nazareth-based Dirsat: The Arab Center for Law and Policy. "It also gives them a push for the national elections" in February, he said. Also on Tuesday, in Shfaram, voters ousted incumbent Mayor Orsan Yassin, an independent candidate who is a member of the Likud. Yassin was targeted by the Arab parties for his Zionist ideas, such as favoring national service for Arab citizens and adopting Likud's ideas vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Mustafa said. Yassin's defeat was an indication that Arab voters "don't want people who identify with the establishment," he said. As none of the candidates in Shfaram received the required 40%, the two top - one supported by Balad and the other by Hadash - will face off in two weeks. Balad and Hadash each have three representatives in the outgoing Knesset. While Hadash lost in Sakhnin, it won the mayorality in Tira and was still considered "the leading political party in local politics," Mustafa said. In Nazareth, the largest Arab city in the country, incumbent Hadash Mayor Ramez Jaraisy held onto the seat he has filled in 1994, beating Ahmad Zoubi, an independent candidate who ran on a united list that included members of the Islamic Movement. Jaraisy won 54% of the votes and Hadash gained two additional seats on the city council, giving it the majority over Zoubi's united list. In Umm el-Fahm, Islamist parties garnered 88% of the votes, indicating that "there isn't much of a secular opposition" there, said Elie Rekhess, director of Tel Aviv University's Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation. However, the northern branch of the Islamic Movement lost three seats on in Umm el-Fahm's council and its mayoral candidate won by a slimmer margin than five years ago. This is partly because one member of the movement split off and established his won Islamic party, which took two mandates away from the Islamic Movement. The Islamic Movement has dominated local politics in the city for nearly 20 years, resulting in a feeling by some that there should be change, Mustafa said. Overall, Tuesday's elections in Arab localities have demonstrated that independent and clan-based candidates are still the strongest candidates in the sector, analysts say. Clan-based or independent candidates fared better both as heads of localities and in receiving mandates at the city council or local council level, Mustafa said. In another demonstration of the power of traditional Arab culture, a high number of candidates ran in a number of villages. In the tiny village of Kabul, for example, eight candidates ran for head of the local council. Because none of the candidates received the required 40%, a runoff will be held in two weeks. In fact, 30% of the 56 Arab localities that held elections on Tuesday will have a second round of elections, compared to only 10% in the Jewish sector, Rekhess said. These figures demonstrate that "local politics are still very much based or founded on traditional pillars or family-clan divisions and that the modern form of democratic elections hasn't fully been adapted to the Arab sector," he said.