It is going to be the best show of democracy the Arab world had ever known. But in the best tradition of the Arab Middle East, there will be few surprises in the voting: The results are more or less already known.
On Jan. 20, as many as 1.2 million Palestinians will elect leaders for the first time in their troubled history.
Although the official campaigning began only this week, the political competition has been in the air for the past few weeks.
Contrary to earlier fears, the campaigning has so far proceeded without bloodshed or bitter clashes, as if democracy has always been the name of the Palestinian political game.
In recent weeks, candidates for the Palestinian Council have filled the newspapers with their photos, seeking the support of the voters.
Suddenly, faces from the intifada – the bitter 1987-1993 uprising against Israeli administration of the territories – have surfaced from deep underground to announce that they are part of the legitimate political scene.
Some 3,000 international supervisors, led by former President Jimmy Carter, are likely to encounter an election in which the rules of the game are generally played fairly – right down to the computerized ballots that were provided with the compliments of the government of Japan.
But “generally” is a key qualifier, given the fact that international observers to the elections have already criticized Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat for making moves aimed at stacking the voting in his favor.
Palestinian voters will make two choices on election day.
They will elect candidates to serve on the 88-member Palestinian Council, the legislative body that will represent 16 electoral districts in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
They will also elect the president of the Palestinian Authority, who along with being the 89th member of the council, will have executive authority over the body.
The only challenger to Arafat for the presidency is Samiha Khalil, 72, a social activist from Ramallah who is expected to receive at best several thousand votes in her West Bank hometown.
Unlike elections in the West, the candidates for the Palestinian Council will only nominally run on their own personal merits.
Instead, support for their candidacies will be based largely on backing by Arafat’s mainstream Al Fatah establishment or from the support of the large clans – known as “hamulas” – in each of the 16 districts.
While the candidates for the council will appear on the ballot as individuals, with no party affiliation, Fatah is circulating its own list of recommendations of who should be elected. The list was created as a result of primaries already held.
But Arafat is maintaining strict control over Fatah’s lists down to the last candidate. And in some cases, he had intervened to remove some candidates from the recommended list.
Some candidates who were out of favor declared last week that they would run independently.
But Fatah immediately countered that anyone who did so would no longer be allowed to return to the Fatah ranks.
Meanwhile, Fatah’s main opponent, the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, has decided to stay out of the elections, though it announced that it would not boycott them.
Fatah and Hamas representatives met last week in Cairo in an attempt to reach an agreement on the elections.
Although no agreement was reached at the time, the very fact that Hamas said it would not boycott the elections was regarded as yet another victory for Arafat, because it reflected a recognition by his strongest opposition that the elections were legitimate.
In addition, several Hamas members announced in the past few days that they would run as independents.
Those announcements prompted some Hamas leaders to brand them as traitors to the cause. In an apparent bow to those pressures, three of the candidates withdrew their names during the week.
Other Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process have also opted out of the elections, leaving a situation in which the only competition to Fatah will come from Communists and eight other insignificant splinter groups – none of whom are expected to gather a significant portion of the vote.
Arafat’s critics say that he and the Fatah leadership are using strong-arm tactics to rule the streets and the polls.
“In Tulkarm, there is no political competition,” said candidate Dr. Thabet Thabet. “There are 40 candidates – all Fatah candidates.”
One of the more striking phenomena in Fatah’s pre-election strategy is the absence of the young leaders of the intifada from the candidate lists.
The youths who had carried the uprising on their shoulders, organizing mass demonstrations and waging stone-throwing wars against the Israelis – and serving prison sentences for their efforts – have suddenly found themselves displaced by older Fatah activists known for their close ties with Arafat’s governing establishment.
These frustrated activists will remain in the autonomous areas after the elections – and they may pose a potential threat to the new Palestinian leaders.
Some intifada leaders, such as Hatem Id of the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, have decided to run as independents.
Id, who served long prison sentences for his involvement in the intifada, won most of the votes in one of the Fatah primaries in eastern Jerusalem.
But Arafat removed him from the Fatah list, forcing him to run independently.
Najib Abu-Rakia, an Israeli Arab who is an activist with the Meretz Party, was sharply critical of the treatment received by the former leaders of the intifada.
“What’s happening now in the West Bank is a disgrace,” he said. “What kind of a parliament are they electing?”
Israel is well aware that if the Palestinian Council does not give the people a sense of true representation, it will ultimately work against the very interests of the Palestinian autonomy – and of Israel as well.
But Israel has no choice. It must be a bystander as the Palestinian elections proceed.
The show must go on, and Arafat is running it. And the Israelis know that there is no one who can do it better.