Palestinians turn out for pivotal vote

Posted in Broader Middle East | 25-Jan-06 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Wearing green caps, Hamas Scouts stood next to a ruling party Fatah assistant, and Palestinian security as they waited for the polling station to open in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
RAMALLAH, West Bank Dressed in his usual dark suit, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, bid goodbye on Tuesday at his headquarters to the former American president, Jimmy Carter, who is here as an electoral observer for Wednesday's parliamentary elections.

The elections will change Palestinian politics fundamentally, but Abbas kept his usual, dour calm. He turned to go back into the Muqata, but reporters stopped him. In a flat and unemotional voice, Abbas urged all Palestinians to vote.

"The election is a right and duty at the same time," he said. "And I hope that the results of this election will reflect honestly the choice of every Palestinian."

These elections represent an extraordinary accomplishment for Abbas - and an extraordinary risk.

Abbas, known universally as Abu Mazen, has made the strategic decision to end the monopoly of his Fatah faction over all the instruments of the Palestinian Authority. He has persistently fought to bring the radical Islamic group Hamas into Palestinian politics against considerable opposition, both internal and external, and he has stuck fast to his conviction that democracy is the best way to establish legitimate institutions.

Many in Fatah, let alone in Israel, believe that Abbas, by encouraging Hamas to take part in the Palestinian Authority, is letting the snake into the garden. They think that by trying to co-opt Hamas, rather than confronting it, Abbas risks handing the state of Palestine that is coming into existence over to the Islamists - to an armed group, sworn to the destruction of Israel, that is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

They think that he has mismanaged Fatah and weakened it by failing to act against corruption and chaos, that he has allowed the Palestinian Authority to deteriorate and Gaza to become a model of anarchy, not statehood, and that he has done far too little to enforce his will and bring along a younger generation hardened by their upbringing under Israeli occupation.

And they think that he - and the United States, which has supported him in pressing for these elections - are not enhancing Palestinian democracy but distorting it, by allowing an armed, terrorist group into government without committing itself first to disarm and swear off violence.

But Abbas, a pale, scholarly man of 70, has overridden all these objections with his trademark distance from the fray, and his habit, irritating to many, of refusing to try to exercise power in the personal, tribal style of his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Palestinians seem eager to vote, with turnout expected to be above 80 percent and opinion polls suggesting a narrow victory for Fatah and its secular allies. But whether Fatah then tries to govern in coalition with Hamas or tries to leave them outside as a large opposition is unclear, and Abbas, who will appoint the next prime minister, has remained silent about his intentions.

"It is Abu Mazen's achievement that these elections will take place on time," said Salah Abdel Shafi, a Gazan economist. "He was under great pressure to postpone or cancel them. It proves his genuine commitment to the process of democracy and the results of these elections."

Shafi, however, describes himself as very nervous about their outcome, especially in an environment where the main parties have their armed militias. "The atmosphere is very tense and loaded," he said. "Even when they start counting the votes, we don't know how certain groups will react if they lose."

Shafi said: "The future of Palestine in the near and medium future will be decided in the next week - it's a crucial time."

What Abbas evidently hopes from his gamble is an outcome that makes Hamas an engaged player but not dominant. "Either we emerge with a strong parliament and government or we have the collapse of the Palestinian Authority," Shafi said.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of Passia, a Palestinian research group in Jerusalem, thinks that Abbas is on a mission he may not complete.

"He believes most importantly that the era of personal leadership is over, and that this must be an era of democracy, representatives and rule of law," Hadi said.

The entire region is trying to come to terms with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists, Hadi notes, in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, as Abbas himself is trying to co-opt Hamas.

"Abu Mazen calls this 'normalization"' with the Islamists, Hadi said. "You can't ignore them anymore or deny them or contain them, so you have to bring them in."

While his personal standing among Palestinians remains high, with an approval rating of more than 60 percent, Abbas is largely without effective allies, either in Fatah or the Palestinian Authority itself. Nor has Israel helped him convince Palestinians that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was due to Abbas and not to Hamas suicide bombings.

"The general view is that he's weak," Shafi said. "People expected more leadership from him."

Abbas remained reactive and indecisive. "I don't think he really understood what it is to be president, the challenge before him and the gross mismanagement and corruption of Fatah," said a Palestinian who watched the process at close hand. "There is no decision-making process, no clear chain of command."

Hanan Ashrawi, a Fatah legislator said legislators brought Abbas a plan of action against corruption and internal squabbles. "But instead of taking action, he cooked up a deal: freeze everything, don't throw out the corrupt officials, sit and do nothing, grasp onto the excuse of the elections," she said.

Abbas's theory is that his mandate comes from the voters - unlike Arafat's, which came from his revolutionary past. With Fatah split in three parts or more, the Palestinian Authority was scarcely representative, so also needed a new, democratic legitimacy. And Hamas had become too powerful to fight on any battlefield except the democratic one, where it might be contained.

So in Hadi's view, "he left things loose - he didn't embrace anyone or commit himself to any one path, he let things develop on their own."

"Abbas is no hypocrite," Hadi said. "Everyone wants him to be different. But he cannot be."