Oct 23 2005

Palestinian election fever

Published by at 2:29 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

By Daoud Kuttab

The mood is becoming upbeat in Palestine these days. Election fever is building up as December and January are expecting important polls. Major Palestinian cities, like Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron,Gaza , Jenin, Rafah, are due to elect mayors and city councils in December. The following month, the entire Palestinian public is due to elect a new legislative council. The city elections will be the first since 1976, legislative elections are the first since 1995. All city mayors in office today are appointed rather than elected. Legislators have been in office for ten years.

While municipal elections are generating interest in the major cities, it is the legislative elections that are the centre of focus, for two important reasons. This is the first time that the Islamic groups (predominantly Hamas) agree to participate in these elections, and they will be mixed. Palestinians will vote using two papers: one to choose 66 members based on district representation, and an equal number to be chosen based on party lists. The latter will be closely watched throughout the Arab world; they will be strengthening political parties and give credence to some of the smallest parties. Using this proportional representation will allow small parties, which might not be able to get a single candidate chosen in a particular district but a combination of votes from all over Palestine , to have a member or two from their party elected.

The pioneering nature of the elections, unfortunately, is not what has grabbed the headlines, but rather the fact that Hamas (as well as Islamic Jihad) plans to participate in the elections. Israeli opposition has varied from calls that any party participating in the elections recognise Israel first to calls for disarming the Islamic groups.


Palestinian officials, as well as the public at large, have been entirely supporting Hamas’ right to participate in the elections. For years Palestinians have been trying to convince Hamas and Islamic Jihad to try and channel their energies through the ballot box and not through the bullet. In fact this is the exact terminology that Shimon Peres used in the past trying to encourage political empowerment of Palestinian militants.


Hamas has repeatedly rejected participation in the political process, stressing that it legitimises the Oslo process which it opposed. But after five years of a military Intifada which has shown the Islamic militants the limits of military action, moderate elements in Hamas finally prevailed and announced their agreement to participate in the upcoming legislative elections. The election participation was part of an agreement reached in Cairo with the active involvement of the head of the Egyptian intelligence service.


The Palestinian president promised that elections would take place in the summer of 2005; in return, the Islamic groups agreed to tahdia — a unilateral period of quiet. But the elections didn’t take place in the summer for a variety of reasons, among which the fact that the election law had not been agreed upon by the legislature and President Mahmoud Abbas had little choice but to postpone the elections till January 2006. The Islamic groups initially protested this postponement but finally accepted it and began preparing for it.

Their success in the initial phase of the municipal elections seems to have worked negatively for them, worrying Israel and Washington . While most observers feel that Hamas and other Islamic candidates are not likely to win more than 30-35 per cent of the vote, Israel demanded that they not be allowed to participate in the elections. This and the fact that Israel has recently began rounding up political leaders of Hamas (including the moderate Hassan Yousef who publicly accepted the two-state solution along the 1967 borders) is bound to increase the Islamic groups’ popularity.

Islamic leaders have repeatedly said that they are not seeking a political coup in the elections but that they are serious about being part of the Palestinian decision-making process.

If the US and Israel want Hamas and Islamic Jihad to participate neither in the military struggle nor in the political arena, what is it that they want them to do?

This issue becomes even more sensitive when taken in the context of US efforts to spread democracy in the greater Middle East and its insistence that its democratic call don’t exclude Muslim parties. Arabs and Muslims, as well as Palestinians, will be closely watching how the United States deals with this issue. If it fails this test, it is unlikely that its ideas will have any chance of success in other Arab or Muslim areas.



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