Uncertainties swirl around Arafat's call for elections

Palestinian elections planned for January 2003 have provoked a host of questions.

Yasser Arafat probably knows whom he is voting for if Palestinians go to the polls in January.

But many of his people are uncertain over what the elections are about, whether they will actually take place, and what the main issues in contention would be.

The fact that 700,000 of them in the West Bank are currently under Israeli army curfew makes polling seem theoretical at best. "People are concerned with their safety and food," says Ramadan Safi, a Palestinian political activist in the Amari Refugee Camp. "It's hard to imagine these elections."

The curfews were imposed as Israel took over seven cities after suicide bombings in Jerusalem killed 26 Israelis. It is not the first time Mr. Arafat is looking to his people for legitimacy at home and, by extension, abroad. In fact, while he is often criticized among his own people for being dictatorial, his recent past shows that democracy, apparent and real, has served his interests.

He relishes reminding interlocutors that he was elected democratically. And he has a point.

In 1996, with a turnout of more than two-thirds, voters in the West Bank chose him over his opponent, hard-line nationalist Samia Khalil, by 87 percent to 10 percent. The election, held alongside voting that created the 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council, was supervised by 2,000 international observers. It was seen as an endorsement of the Oslo self-rule system that brought Arafat from Tunis to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and as a step toward state-building.

At the time, Arafat's aides called the polling a major step in his transformation "from revolutionary legitimacy to constitutional legitimacy," from revolutionary leader to head of a state in the making.

Elections as a lifeline

That was a long time ago, and much of the impetus for the elections came from the international community. But analysts say Arafat is clearly again hoping democracy will help him, and even facilitate his survival. However, these elections are not about is ushering in a new era of democracy and reform that would break from Arafat's pattern of monopolizing power, says Azmi Shueibi, a former minister in Arafat's first cabinet. "Reform is not part of his mentality and not part of his pattern of building the authority," he says. Still, Palestinian advocates of reform, including within Arafat's Fatah movement, have been demanding elections and view them as a possible means of forcing their leader to share power.

Point of elections 'unclear'

The legislative council, launched amid high hopes, never became a counterweight to the executive. Its term, and Arafat's, expired last year.

Palestinian analysts are wondering, among other things, what the council's role be would be now during a period of political limbo, without self-rule or a state.

"I cannot guess what we are electing this time around," says Issam Nassar, deputy head of the Institute for Jerusalem Studies, a Palestinian think tank. "The Oslo framework is dead, the interim government is over. Are we resurrecting Oslo? Are we trying to imagine a future state, and are we electing people to be de facto leaders in a state? It's all completely unclear."

Adding to the uncertainty, he says, is that no one seems to know how long the terms of the winners would be.

Clouding the entire discussion is the question of whether polling is possible with Israeli troops in the vicinity who might view the campaigning as a type of incitement. And whether Palestinian suicide bombings will continue, which would give Israel cause to foil the elections.

"With all of the uncertainties, the bottom line of the elections revolves around the question of giving Arafat a political mandate to find ways to get us out of this situation and move toward a state," says Mr. Nassar. "But if he is elected, the problems with the United States will continue. Bush won't deal with Arafat, and the impasse will be prolonged."

A recent survey of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that 35 percent of Palestinians prefer Arafat as their leader, compared with 19 percent for Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned leader of Arafat's Fatah faction, and 13 percent for Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which advocates Israel's destruction.

Mr. Safi, the Fatah political activist, says that the United States is boosting Arafat's popularity by demanding his replacement. "Arafat will run, and Arafat will win," says Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib.

Hard-liners have edge

But in contrast to 1996, when supporters of a two-state compromise were dominant in the legislative council contests, this time hard-liners will enjoy the upper hand, he says. Polling, he says, will likely be a disaster for hopes of reviving peace talks, a distant hope already given Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's opposition. "What can I as a candidate campaign on, without a peace process or the prospect of peace?" asks Mr. Khatib, who will be running for the legislative council. "This is not the right time for elections. These elections will backfire on Bush because they will reflect the radicalization of Palestinian society."

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