Nov 07 2005

A vote for the future of Palestine

Published by at 3:08 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

By: Daoud Kuttab*

The biggest question in the upcoming elections for the Palestinian legislature is not how many seats Hamas will win. Nor are people questioning how the mixed elections (district and national) will play out. The real question on most Palestinian’s lips these days is who will represent the leading Palestinian party (movement).

Fateh, which prides itself as a liberation movement (my mistake of calling it a party got me a reprimand from Yasser Arafat) is witnessing 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 and younger leaders, not just between Tunis-based leaders and those who have never left the occupied territories. While these are some of the problems, the real crisis stems from the lack of any attractive leadership. While many will be vying for the chance of being nominated by Fateh, it is not clear whether such an honour will be, as in the past, the guarantee of an election victory.

At a recent iftar dinner in Ramallah, I asked the head of the pro-Fateh lawyers union who he and his bar association were planning to support. “The only issue we have decided on is that we don’t want to reelect any of the existing members of the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC),” Ahmad Sayyad told me with leading members of the association nodding in agreement.

I found similar sentiments when I talked to Palestinians in other West Bank cities. Most agreed that there is a strong popular desire to bring in new faces and use the elections to make some radical changes in Palestinian political life. But while the desire to make a political blood change exists, it is difficult to see how this change will take place. The Fateh local committees in various districts have began a process of enlisting members. Reliable sources assured me that there is no specific requirement to join Fateh, which is both a strength and a weakness. Any Palestinian of voting age is eligible to join this movement and will be able to vote in the upcoming primaries which many Fateh members are hoping will be an effective mechanism in deciding on the upcoming list for the elections.

The primaries, however, are not working out the way the movement is planning. The fact that Fateh considers any Palestinian not affiliated with an existing party to be Fateh material doesn’t necessarily mean that these individuals will join Fateh lists. Many individuals who are popular in their district have yet to agree to join a Fateh list despite being woed by some of the Fateh leadership. Without some big names who can make a strong showing, the primary system might work against Fateh, because once internal primaries take place, those who will be elected will expect, indeed insist to be on the Fateh list.

On the other hand, strong individuals who will have a better chance and who would be willing to join a Fateh list (without having to go through the grinding fight of the primaries) will not be able to participate.

There are ideas of having the Fateh list consist of a mix of some individuals elected internally and others chosen by the leadership. But the leadership is so divided without a strong person like Arafat to keep it united that many are worried that the entire process will weaken rather than strengthen the movement.

The Palestinian national movement has been led for years by Fateh and its long-time leader, Arafat. The absence of the old man, as many of his colleagues used to call him, is sorely felt these days within the movement. In the past, divisions within Fateh would always disappear once a major crisis threatened the movement.

Some Palestinian analysts familiar with the movement expect its members to pull together and push aside internal conflict as the day for elections comes closer. The fear of losing power can be a strong force that unites a divided movement.

Arafat was able to lead the movement and was often successful in pulling the rabbits out of a hat. Mahmoud Abbas has yet to show anything close to the leadership abilities of his predecessor, especially behind closed doors. Abu Mazen has repeatedly expressed the desire to do things differently and to allow for genuine democratic mechanisms to determine who will run.

While it might be too early to say now how the Fateh movement will deal with these challenges, the election in late January will certainly be as much a vote for Fateh as a vote for the future of Palestine.

* Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist and the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah

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