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Hamas election boycott leaves West Bank Palestinians with only one choice

Campaigning begins today for West Bank local elections this month. Hamas might have done well in some cities, like Nablus, but its boycott means rival Fatah is already the de facto winner.

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Mahmoud Ramhi, a Hamas member of parliament from the West Bank who backs the boycott, says the municipal elections will deepen the split. He believes reconciliation must come first, and only then elections, whether municipal, legislative, or presidential.

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Hamas popularity has waned

The possibility of Hamas participating in the election is unrealistic as long as the group faces arrests of its activists by the Palestinian Authority, the government in the West Bank, Mr. Ramhi says. Last week 150 Hamas supporters were detained without charges, he says, and only 40 have been released.

''The problem is that after these victories, the authorities would simply arrest more of our people. Without reconciliation, we can't have any guarantees the results will be respected,'' said Ramhi, himself recently released from 20 months of Israeli detention – without charges, he says. 

Palestinian Authority security forces spokesman Adnan Damiri was unavailable for comment on the arrests.

Mr. Abdullah, the Fatah legislator, denied that the Palestinian Authority would interfere in results if Hamas ran.

Ramhi asserts that if not for the boycott, Hamas would win the upcoming elections in Nablus, Hebron, and Ramallah, but independent analysts say Hamas would likely not repeat its strong 2005 showing. 

According to a poll conducted earlier this month by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 35 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank would vote for Fatah if legislative elections were held now – 10 points ahead of Hamas.

Fatah has been helped by a decline in the public's perception of corruption within Fatah and less fragmentation within the party, while the public's evaluation of Hamas's performance in power ''is not as positive as the expectations were in 2005," Center director Khalil Shikaki says.

Mr. Shikaki says that were it to run for municipalities, Hamas would not do as well as it did in 2005, but that it would still have a showing that is ''not terribly bad."

Who can bring the money?

In Nablus, Hamas's absence from the polling has turned the contest into a battle between two Fatah candidates: Shakaa, the favorite, who decided to run outside the Fatah framework on his own list because, he says, he is mayor of all 140,000 Nabulsis; and Amin Makboul, a veteran Fatah leader whose Independence and Development list includes representatives of most factions of the PLO. A third underdog list of independents, Nablus for Everyone, is also running.

Voters are not yet stirred up by Shakaa and Makboul, although that may be because official campaigning did not begin until today.

''The two represent the same political tendency and the only difference is a personal difference,'' says Mohammed Salih, who works in a clothing store near Nablus's Old City and has not yet decided for whom to vote. ''If Hamas participated then there would be a real difference, but in my opinion Hamas wouldn't get many votes. People have the idea that if Hamas is elected, we won't get foreign donor money and the economic situation will get even worse.''

But a young man selling scarves, who asked not to be identified, said Hamas incumbent mayor Adli Yaish would have been best qualified to run the city.

''He did a good job for this city, even though foreign countries did not support him," the man says.

Shakaa's style is soft spoken but not altogether modest. ''Whatever you see in Nablus, we put it up. The huge mall in the city center – we did it. The sewage system – it was we who signed the agreement with Germany to build it," he says.

His main promise now, in addition to youth programs, is to improve the local economy by garnering foreign funding for projects in the city, as he did during the heyday of Palestinian self-rule in the 1990s. Nablus used to be one of the more prosperous Palestinian cities, known for its shoe, furniture, and soap factories, but Israeli policies, years of conflict, cheap imports, and a lack of investor confidence have all taken their toll. 

The man who would be mayor of Nablus is unfazed by the magnitude of the challenges or by the Hamas boycott. ''If they want to have their part of the cake, they should run. If they don't, it's their decision," he says.


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