For valid elections

As in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Abbas-led PA has an opportunity to create the genuinely free climate for a truly democratic election.

Abbas smiling 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Abbas smiling 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The ripple effects of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster over the weekend are being felt all over the region. The message being sent out from Tahrir Square is that Mideast leaders who want to stay in power must garner legitimacy through a fair, democratic election process.
The blatant rigging of the winter’s parliamentary elections in Egypt was at least part of the cause of Mubarak’s fall. Nobody expected a loss for the National Democratic Party, which has ruled the country since its creation in 1978 by Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat. Egypt is renowned for election shams – so much so that during the 2006 Palestinian elections, when it became known Egypt would send officials to join international monitoring of the voting process, Palestinians joked that they might wake up to find they had elected Mubarak as their president. But unlike in 2005, the latest “elections” lacked even any remote resemblance to the real thing.
In the first round, names were removed from ballots, monitors were denied access to polls, anti-Mubarak polling stations were suddenly shut down, ballots were stuffed, and many of these shenanigans were captured on film and relayed in real time on the Internet. Parties connected to the nominally banned Muslim Brotherhood, which had gained almost 20 percent of the 454 parliament seats in the 2005 elections, boycotted the subsequent rounds, together with the secular-liberal Wafd party, depriving Mubarak of his democratic fig leaf and setting in motion some of the forces that brought about his demise.
IN RESPONSE, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, anxious to shore up legitimacy for Fatah leadership, announced on Saturday, just one day after Mubarak stepped down, that the PA would hold presidential and parliamentary elections as early as September.
Abbas hopes, apparently, to learn from Mubarak’s mistake and receive a new mandate from the people.
But that will be easier said than done. Hamas, which forcibly took away control of the Gaza Strip from the PA in 2007 after winning the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, has announced that it will boycott such elections, already therefore robbing a Fatah victory of any real significance.
Dr. Nabil Kukali, director-general of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, says Hamas opposes elections right now because it is afraid of losing, particularly in the Gaza Strip. According to a poll conducted by Kukali in the summer of 2010, 42.1% of Palestinians supported Fatah in the Gaza Strip compared to just 19.8% who supported Hamas. Despite a slight rise in popularity after the Mavi Marmara incident, Gazans are, apparently, fed up with Hamas’s militant extremism, which is blamed in part for the Israeli blockade and Operation Cast Lead. In the West Bank, meanwhile, Fatah enjoyed 48.2% of the vote to Hamas’s 41.3%.
Still, it is not at all clear that Kukali’s assessment is up to date. In recent weeks the PA has suffered a drop in popularity. Though there was nothing terribly new in the “Palestine Papers,” this trove of classified documents was tendentiously leaked by Al-Jazeera as “proof” that the Palestinian negotiating team had “caved in” to Israeli demands by recognizing a few Jewish neighborhoods in parts of east Jerusalem or by showing some flexibility on the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. It is not at all clear, therefore, that Fatah would win elections against Hamas, particularly in the West Bank.
Regardless of which of the two is more popular, however, it would be a mistake to rush headlong into elections again right now anyway. Among the Palestinians, precisely as among the Egyptians, premature elections will not be sufficient to establish a stable democracy.
In the West Bank, Fatah thugs continue to arrest and intimidate Hamas-affiliated activists. Hamas is doing the same to Fatah members in Gaza. Neither in the West Bank nor in Gaza is there freedom of the press or freedom of assembly (when dozens of Palestinians tried to stage an anti-Mubarak rally in Ramallah last week, PA security forces used force to disperse them). The court systems in both areas are far from fair-handed, and the official education systems continue to incite against Israel. In both places, “fear societies” continue to exist, where voters will simply choose whichever of the two violent factions they think will protect them best.
Violently controlled by Hamas, Gaza appears to be a lost cause for the near future. But as in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Abbas-led PA has an opportunity to deepen the process of democratic institution building and to create the genuinely free climate, which are the prerequisites to a truly democratic election.
This should be the Palestinians’ lesson from the events that led to Mubarak’s ouster. Succeeding would send an invaluable message to the people of Gaza that there is a sane alternative to Hamas.