It is perhaps ironic that a part of the heart of the Muslim world that has been under western occupation for over half-a-century should have some of the most vibrant politics in the modernMiddle East. For the west, the presidential elections in the area of Palestinian autonomy was proof of their commitment to bringing democratization to the Muslim world. Palestinians, however, know that the process was far from any democratic ideal, and needs to be understood in the particular circumstances of life under Israeli occupation.
The victory of Mahmood Abbas was marred by a low voter-turn-out and accusations of fraud. The Palestinian Authority’s Central Election Commission (CEC) reported that 757,146 Palestinians voted, 26,363 of them from East Jerusalem. One major problem of the polls was in determining who would be permitted to vote. Two lists were used, one a “civil registry” list of 1.8 million voters from the West Bank and Ghazzah, but excluding residents of East Jerusalem, compiled by the Israelis is 1996. This is seriously dated, with over 350,000 names believed to be out-of-date for various reasons. The other list was a “list of registered voters” based on Palestinian ID cards, which is also controlled by the Israeli authorities. According to the civil registry list, only 42 percent of the electorate voted; on the basis of the registered voters list, turn-out was 68 percent. However, even these figures need to be treated with extreme caution, as PA electoral authorities, desperate to see Abbas granted the greatest possible mandate, extended voting hours in some areas and permitted people to vote without the proper checks. Although
Abbas also did not face opposition from Hamas, which decided not to take part in the elections partly because it did not want to promote internecine fighting within Palestinians, and partly because it recognised that a Hamas candidate would as not be able or permitted to take office if he won, and that any Hamas success would ring the wrath of Israel on all Palestinians However, a measure of Hamas’s support can be gauged from the results of local elections held in 26 towns and villages in the West Bank on December 23. Hamas won 109 of the 306 contested seats, compared to 136 won by Fatah, even though all 26 towns were regarded as Fatah strongholds and had been selected specifically to give Fatah the best possible boost in the run-up to the presidential elections. Hamas won control of the councils of 13 of the 26 towns, all of them previously controlled by Fatah. Hamas spokesmen have also called for the acceleration of legislative elections in the rest of the PA areas. Elections are due to take place in 50 more areas in the West Bank and Ghazzah in April, many of them already Hamas strongholds.
Although it has been widely reported that Hamas and other Islamic movements have lost support in recent months as Palestinians have turned towards Abbas and his pragmatic approach to dealings with Israel over a future peace agreement, this is largely wishful thinking. The reality is that Hamas remains widely respected and supported, and that Mahmood Abbas knows that his mandate is extremely limited. Like other Arab leaders, he owes his position more to foreign endorsement than genuine support from Palestinians. He also does have the symbolic position enjoyed by Yasser Arafat; his future is likely to be very difficult indeed as he tries to reconcile Palestinian aspirations and Israeli demands.