May 06 2005

Election fever

Published by at 4:14 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

The corridors of the normally quiet Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University were crowded on Tuesday as students and their supporters from various political groups were busy worrying about elections.

After a five-year hiatus, students at Al Quds University were given the chance to cast their votes for the 51-seat student council. Students wearing various colours were clutching rosters, crossing those who had voted, hoping they had cast their votes in favour of their faction.

The groups running for student council this year were not much different from those of previous years. Feeling strong about their chances of winning, Fateh supporters ran alone this year, on a slate named after the late president Yasser Arafat.

Islamic groups — possibly feeling weaker than before — were united (Hamas, Jihad and Islamic independents), creating a single block. Left-wing supporters produced their own block.

The election campaign was tough and at times nasty, with Islamic supporters distributing leaflets they claimed were secret documents showing that the university administration clearly favoured some of the Palestinian Authority personnel, including some from the security apparatuses, for scholarships.

The Fateh leadership, which had been surprised by a number of defeats in the first leg of the municipal elections in Gaza, were clearly more prepared this time, spending effort and money to make sure that their supporters won big.

The student council elections at Al Quds University produced a major coup. After over 20 years during which the Islamic groups had monopolised student council life, this year the Fateh-backed students won a clear majority, with 26 seats going to the Arafat faction and two seats going to their traditional left-wing PLO allies.

Election fever was also prevalent in 84 different cities, villages and townships. According to the Palestinian Central Election Commission, some 2,519 candidates were competing for 906 seats throughout Gaza and the West Bank.

Among the cities witnessing hotly contested campaigns was Bethlehem, were the competition was not between Fateh and Islamic candidates but between differing streams within Fateh, because the number of Christian seats was guaranteed. The battle was especially fierce in the Bethlehem and Beit Sahour municipalities, were traditional and known Fateh candidates were challenged by younger and less known figures.

It is hard to say whether the results of the students’ elections or even those of the municipalities are any major indicator of the way the political tide is going. The key elections for the Palestinian legislative council are to be held on July 17. The election law has yet to be finalised. The present draft, which passed the first reading, calls for two thirds of the seats representing local candidates and one-third reflecting party slates. Fateh MPs who are a majority in the present PLC feel that this system (rather than the 50-50 system) would better favour their candidates.

Palestinian election fever certainly reflects some of the changes that have been taking place for the past six months. The retraction of the hardline Islamic and secular groups indicates that Palestinians are clearly moving closer to a more moderate political and pragmatic direction. How long this direction will last and whether it will be reflected in the upcoming legislative elections is hard to predict. One thing is for sure: both Islamic and Fateh leaderships know that at least in the upcoming elections they need to field credible, trusted and clean candidates or else they will face political defeat. For that and that alone, elections, any elections are certainly better than no elections.

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