As this article is written, it is still far from clear as to whether the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, scheduled for January 25, will take place. At the time, the situation is that special polling centres had opened their doors on January 21 for members of the Palestinian security forces to cast their votes in three days of early voting. This move was designed to enable members of the security forces to maintain order on January 25. But certain trends in Palestinian political life hold true irrespective of whether these general elections will be held this time or postponed again. Whenever the Palestinians go to the polls, they will elect their PNC representatives for the first time in nearly a decade; the last time such an election took place was in 1996.
The pre-election campaigning made it clear that the political fortunes of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority (PNA) have waned considerably. Palestinian voters have grown impatient with the inefficiency and corruption permeating the PNA, which has shown itself to be riddled with privilege, nepotism and sleaze. As an elected government entrusted with the security and welfare of its citizens, the PNA has failed to provide Palestinians with either. And because elections are not lose-lose affairs, the vacuum resulting from the PNA's loss of political ground will be filled by rival groups.
Polls predict that the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) is poised to clinch at least a third of the vote on the national party lists, from which half of the 132 deputies will be elected. The remainder are to be chosen at the constituency level, and it is here that polls show Hamas running neck-and-neck with Fatah. The election is based on a mixed electoral system combining district (or constituency) voting with proportional representation, or national lists. Under the slogan “Change and Reform”, Hamas has emerged as the antithesis of the corruption, inefficiency, disorganisation and lack of discipline that Fatah has come to mean.
In four rounds of recent local elections, Hamas made a strong showing. It took control of municipal councils in a number of key West Bank cities, including Jenin, al-Bireh, a twin-city of Ramallah, and Nablus, a former Fatah stronghold. The fact that several candidates from Fatah were running in the municipal elections meant that votes for Fatah were split. Buoyed by its successes in the municipal elections, Hamas has decided to end its longstanding boycott of legislative elections, which it has traditionally regarded as a by-product of illegitimate deals withIsrael.
Fatah, the backbone of the PNA, has largely imploded, turning into a snake-pit with rival, self-interested factions fighting over power and its spoils. This was a natural outcome of the movement's composition: it is a potpourri of disparate politicians and trends that were bound mostly by loyalty to its leading founding father, Yasser Arafat, who until his death in November 2004 was the focal point of the aspirations of a large number of Palestinians for statehood. Moreover, whatever capacity to govern the PNA possessed has been sapped by Israel's systematic efforts to isolate and undermine it. To make things worse, armed clashes have also been erupting between rival clans who perpetrate street fights, kidnaps and extortion, with the Palestinian security forces largely standing by and incapable of imposing law and order or discipline. Armed gangs and factions have been kidnapping foreigners as a way of pressuring Abbas into giving them jobs or freeing friends and relatives from jails. In fact, the plethora of security apparatuses has contributed to the spiral of internal violence that has brought some Palestinian areas, especially in the liberated Ghazzah Strip, to the brink of civil war. Palestinian police forces have on many occasions joined in the anarchy, taking over government buildings and staging armed street demonstrations to protest their lack of firepower they need in order to deal with street gangs.
Generational differences and cleavages have added to the tensions tearing at the organizational fabric of Fatah. The Fatah “old guard” has failed to take measures to accommodate younger activists who fought the Israelis in the first and second intifadas. If the “young guard” manage to gain the upper hand in this protracted power struggle, it could inject some urgently needed new blood into Fatah, and perhaps some efficiency and transparency with it.
Internal tensions peaked when the recent primaries, held to elect Fatah candidates, degenerated into shoot-outs and chaos. Palestinian officials decided on January 13 to close all election offices in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip after masked Fatah gunmen, exasperated at the handling of the primaries, raided and ransacked a number of them. Eventually, two Fatah lists were announced, one drafted by the “old guard” and packed with unpopular old-timers, the other formed by the “young guard” under the name of al-Mustaqbil (“the future”). Fourteen candidates were on both lists. But the fact that there are two Fatah lists will help to cut the “old guard” down to size.
Even the “young guard”, however, is far from united. Three competing trends can be discerned. The most popular is the one led by Marwan al-Barghouti, the former secretary general of Fatah in the West Bank, who is currently serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail after an Israeli court convicted him of involvement in attacks that killed five Israelis during the intifada, and from whose cell the Mustaqbil list is believed to have been formed. The other two are led by two former security service chiefs: Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril al-Rajjoub. Other smaller, yet more radical, factions have criticised the de facto ceasefire with the Israelis. One such group is led by Zakariya al-Zubayidi, head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade in the West Bank city ofJenin.
The crisis within the PNA is very much the result of the crony-ridden legacy of the late Yasser Arafat. Upon returning to Palestine from Tunisia in 1994 after the infamous Oslo Accords, Arafat distributed the spoils of power and privilege mainly among those who went into exile with him. It is these cronies who are responsible for much of the corruption, nepotism and ineptitude that have long plagued the PNA. Their profligate lifestyle and monopoly of power and privilege within the PNA have aggravated the bitterness and frustration of the cohort of younger, home-grown leaders and activists. Within such an atmosphere, it is natural to see how the poor economic conditions of most Palestinians have contributed to the decline in the popularity of the PNA. After more than a decade of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip remain as impoverished as ever.
The Palestinian people's anger has turned overtly against Mahmud Abbas, Arafat's successor as president of the PNA. In many ways, Abbas has failed utterly to fill the leadership vacuum left by his predecessor. The late leader has left his successor a political inheritance riven by simmering feuds and internal rivalries between various factions within Fatah, the contemporaries and comrades of Arafat in the PLO, and an assortment of security arms of the PNA. But Abbas has also been hopelessly inept, feeble and obsequious in the face of the Israelis. When he came to power a year ago, Abbas promised to eradicate corruption within the PNA. Yet, although he managed to remove some of the most corrupt officials, such as Musa Arafat, Yasser Arafat's widely-reviled cousin who was later murdered by a Fatah faction in his house a few hundred metres away from Abbas's Ghazzah City home, his half-hearted measures were not the thorough reforms needed to restore accountability and credibility to the PNA after the years of corruption and grafting by his fellow old-timers.
The reputation of Hamas for probity and sincerity has been boosted since it entered local politics. The movement also enjoys the internal discipline and organizational coherence that Fatah has long lost. Its sterling reputation and record make it well placed to institute and enforce the reforms that Palestinians yearn for.
The Israelis have tried to use the label of “terrorism” against Hamas in an attempt to prevent it from taking part in the elections. Tzipi Livni, Israel's newly-appointed foreign minister, said: “There is no democracy in the world that would allow terror organizations to take part in the elections.” But the Israelis later dropped their threats to block the election if Hamas takes part. The West has also tried to forestall an electoral victory for Hamas. The US House of Representatives has passed a resolution stating that if cabinet posts in the future Palestinian government go to Hamas, then an American aid-package worth US$350 million for the PNA will be reviewed. Javier Solana, European Union foreign policy chief, weighed in with a warning that tens of millions of euros' worth of EU development funds would not be forthcoming if Hamas wins the election and does not renounce violence.
At the time of writing, how many seats Hamas will actually win is anyone's guess. The result will shape the movement's role in the future government and whether it will be able to wield a de facto veto power over future negotiations with the Israelis. The prospect of a coalition government with members of Hamas as cabinet ministers has never seemed so imminent. If this transpires, Hamas is likely to prefer services portfolios to ones where Hamas ministers will have to deal direct with Israelis. This will help Hamas to provide new hope for the Palestinians amid the all-encompassing misery and desolation of their lives. Above all, Hamas should use its new power to strengthen its roots among its people. So far, much of the popularity gained by Hamas has been a function of the politics of despair within the Palestinian community. Even the campaign of Hamas benefited from the advantages enjoyed by anti-incumbent electoral messages. Palestinians have been turning to Hamas to vent their frustration with Fatah and the PNA. It is time that Hamas use the opportunities made available to it by the ballot-box to build on its remarkable record in providing services for its people. This will enable this Islamic movement to present a living, successful glimpse of a better future based on the prescriptions of Islam for social and individual justice, as it has already succeeded in providing a radical strategy for liberation based on Islamic prescriptions for armed struggle.