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Backgrounder Palestinian General Elections to Be a Showdown Between Hamas, Fatah

January 19, 2006
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Palestinian elections, set for Jan. 25, are mainly seen as a race between the ruling Fatah party and the fundamentalist terrorist group Hamas, which is running for the first time in general elections. Some 1.34 million Palestinians are to go to the polls to elect 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The general elections are the Palestinian Authority’s first in 10 years and originally were scheduled to take place in summer 2005, but were postponed.

Around a dozen lists are to run, though recent polls indicate that some 75 percent of the vote will be split by Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas, labeled by Israel and the U.S. as a terrorist group, is known for its social and charity programs in the Palestinian territories — as well as its spectacular attacks on Israel — and did well in last year’s municipal elections. Opposed to Israel’s very existence, Hamas’ recent public statements have been slightly less categorical.

Fatah, the ruling party of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat, has dealt with internal problems, almost splitting in late December over its party list. Certain factors, including a large increase in the Parliament’s size and a change in the style of the elections, have brought Fatah’s internal tensions to the fore.

The elections are seen as a confidence vote on the leadership of Abbas, elected a year ago following Arafat’s death. Abbas has not made visible progress on major Palestinian goals such as reaching a peace agreement with Israel that would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, securing Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners who took part in terrorist attacks, raising international financial support to help the ailing P.A. economy recover and reducing widespread corruption.

Abbas also has failed to curb the internecine violence that has plagued P.A.-controlled areas, with the P.A. security forces fighting armed militias, violent gangs vying for influence and Fatah facing off against its competitors.

Conflict also exists within Fatah, between its younger and older generations. The Old Guard, led by P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, accompanied Arafat through the long years of political exile. The Young Guard is comprised of local leaders such as Mohammed Dahlan and jailed Tanzim head Marwan Barghouti, and has been active in the armed struggle against Israel.

Fatah officially accepts Israel’s existence and is pushing for a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, but it maintains an armed wing and a fierce internal debate rages in the party over whether attacks on Israel are acceptable.

Hamas will run on a ticket of “change and reform.” However, many candidates vow publicly to continue attacks on Israel. Gaza Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar told the New York Times last week that his faction will not recognize Israel or disarm, even if it wins the elections.

Other Hamas leaders have made slightly softer public announcements. Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tir, No. 2 on Hamas’ national list, did not rule out negotiations with Israel, saying Hamas has adopted “new rules to the game.” He told Ha’aretz that “we will negotiate with Israel better than the others.”

The party’s political manifesto is one of the most moderate documents the organization has published since its establishment. Unlike Hamas’ 1988 charter, which denies Israel’s right to exist and says its land is part of the Islamic trust (Waqf), the new platform suffices with a general demand for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital — the same election slogan used by Fatah and the PLO.

The manifesto does call, however, for the right to use “all means” to put an end to occupation, implement the “right of return” that the Palestinians demand for millions of refugees, and make Islamic legislation the source of P.A. legislation.

Thanks to Hamas demands, the electoral system has changed. Previously, each of 10 districts voted for representatives, whose numbers were decided by the district’s population size. Hamas pushed for a national vote with a proportional system, similar to the Israeli one.

The result is a compromise: The number of members of Parliament was increased from 88 to 132, half of whom will be elected in the regional system, and half in a national proportional system. The new system created a special challenge for Fatah, forcing it to form a list for the national half of the elections.

This brought to the surface the struggle between the Young Guard and the Old Guard. The party’s younger generation threatened to split Fatah and run its own list of candidates, and gun battles have broken out between the factions. Ultimately, it was agreed that Fatah’s list on the national ballot will be headed by Barghouti — who is serving five life terms in an Israeli jail for his role in terrorist attacks — and will include mostly new, young and relatively unknown candidates.

In the current 88-person Parliament, Fatah holds 68 seats, secular non-affiliated parties hold 12 seats, Islamic non-affiliated parties hold seven seats, and one seat is held by the Palestinian Democratic Union.

In the upcoming elections, Fatah is fielding 111 candidates and Hamas 115. Other lists include “The Third Road,” headed by outgoing Finance Minister Salam Fayad and lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi; “Independent Palestine,” headed by human rights activist Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who won 18 percent of the vote in the presidential race against Abbas last year; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by Ahmad Sa’adat, who is being held in a Palestinian prison for his role in the assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze’evi; and Badil, a leftist movement. There also are a number of splinter parties that stand little chance.

The legislature approves Cabinet members, oversees the budget, and can issue a vote of no confidence in the government. Although on paper the president has extensive powers and can act freely without parliamentary approval, the legislative branch has proven time and again that it has teeth and can bite.

Abbas wanted to postpone the elections, but bowed to American pressure and Hamas threats of violence.

Israel threatened to ban voting in eastern Jerusalem but it, too, has bowed to American pressure and will allow Palestinians there to vote. However, Hamas will not be allowed to campaign in Jerusalem, and Israeli police detained three Islamist activists for staging an election meeting there.

According to the latest poll by Birzeit University, Fatah is projected to win with 35 percent of the vote, Hamas will gain 30 percent, and Independent Palestine will win about 6 percent. Some 21 percent of voters are still undecided.

According to an earlier poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, Fatah would beat Hamas 43 percent to 25 percent in the national party-list vote, but Hamas would do much better in the regional vote. However, some say that local power politics will be more decisive in regional elections than the Fatah-Hamas confrontation.

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