What now for Fatah?

The movement whose name is synonymous with Palestinian nationalism is not guaranteed an easy electoral campaign.

The really big question in the upcoming elections for the Palestinian legislature is not how many seats Hamas will win or whether the system for voting - district as well as national - is going to work. The real question on the minds of many Palestinians these days is who will represent the leading Palestinian party - I mean movement. Fatah which prides itself as a liberation movement (my calling it a "party" got me a reprimand from the late Yasser Arafat) is going through a serious crisis. Ever since the death of its long-time leader the movement has been experiencing a major internal struggle. It is not just a struggle between older leaders and younger ones, not just between Tunis-based veterans and those who never left the occupied territories. While these are some of the problems, the real crisis stems from the lack of any exciting leadership. Although many will be vying for the chance to be nominated by Fatah, it is not clear whether running under the Fatah banner will be, as in the past, a guarantee for victory. At an iftar dinner (the meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan to break the day's fast) in Ramallah last week, I asked the head of the pro-Fatah lawyers union who he and the bar association are planning to support. "The only issue we have decided on is that we don't want to re-elect any of the existing members of the PLC," Ahmad Sayyad told me with leading members of the association nodding in agreement. I HEARD similar sentiments when I talked to Palestinians in other West Bank cities. There is a strong popular desire to bring in new faces and use the elections to make radical changes in Palestinian political life. But while there is a desire to bring in new blood it is difficult to see how this will come about. Fatah local committees in various districts have begun the process of enlisting members. There are no specific requirements to join Fatah, which is both a strength and weakness. Any Palestinian of voting age is eligible to join the movement and will be able to vote in its upcoming primaries. Many Fatah members are hoping this will be an effective mechanism in deciding on the upcoming election list. The primaries, however, are not working out the way that the movement had planned. Just because Fatah considers all Palestinians not affiliated with an existing party to be Fatah material doesn't necessarily mean these individuals will join Fatah lists. Many candidates who are popular in their district have yet to agree to join a Fatah list - despite being wooed by the Fatah leadership. In addition, once internal primaries take place, those who have been elected will expect, and indeed insist, on being on the Fatah list. On the other hand, there are candidates who have a good chance at victory in the general elections and who are willing to join a Fatah list, but who don't want to go through the grinding fight of the primaries. To resolve this tension between primaries and appointments, some have floated the idea of having the Fatah list consist of a mix of individuals - some elected through primaries, others chosen by the leadership. But the leadership is so divided - with no strong personality like Arafat - that it may be unable to make such selections. The absence of the Old Man, as many of his colleagues used to call Arafat, is sorely felt within the movement. He was able to lead the movement and pull political rabbits of the hat. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), has yet to show anything close to the leadership abilities of his predecessor - especially behind closed doors. In the past, divisions within Fatah disappeared once a major crisis threatened. Some Palestinian analysts expect it to pull together again as the election period comes closer. The fear of losing power can be a strong incentive in uniting a divided movement. Abu Mazen has repeatedly expressed a desire to do things differently and allow for a genuine democratic mechanism to determine who will run. But many are worried the primary process will weaken rather than strengthen the movement. Whatever the outcome, the upcoming vote in late January will certainly be as much a vote about Fatah as a vote for the future of Palestine. The writer is a Palestinian journalist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.