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.

Municipal elections in the West Bank are still three weeks away, but the self-styled patriarch of Nablus politics, Ghassan Shakaa, speaks as if he is already in the mayor's office.

He describes one of his key plans – an after-school program for teens who, he laments, currently languish in coffee shops – as if it's a sure thing.

"We have already started to engage in discussions with the youth of Nablus themselves and we have asked them to discuss among themselves what they need and what we can do for them,'' says Mr. Shakaa, a veteran leader of the West Bank's ruling Fatah movement.

Shakaa may be justified in his confidence. With Hamas, one of the two main Palestinian political movements boycotting the elections, he has a good shot.

He was mayor of the ancient city for a decade after the launch of Palestinian self-rule under his friend and late leader Yasser Arafat in 1994 and is a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee. The Shakaas have been at or near the fore of Nablus politics since the 1950s, and he hopes his experience and family associations will catapult his National and Independent Nablus list to victory.

But prominent as the Shakaa name is, the Oct. 20 elections in Nablus and 103 other West Bank locales are at least as much about who is not running as who is.

'No reconciliation in sight'

Hamas, the militant Islamic rival to Fatah that rules the Gaza Strip, is boycotting the West Bank polling, despite decent chances of success in Nablus and an expected respectable showing elsewhere. In the last municipal vote in 2005, it swept to power in Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and other cities – a harbinger of its stunning victory in legislative elections a year later.

But Fatah would not allow Hamas to rule in Gaza despite its victory, so the frustrated movement staged an armed takeover of Gaza in 2007, splitting the Palestinian territories into two rival governments. Efforts to heal the rift have floundered, with each side unwilling to share power in its area of dominance. The decision by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, to go ahead with municipal elections and by Hamas to call on voters to boycott the election is causing further acrimony.

Abdullah Abdullah, a legislator from Fatah, argues that the Palestinian Authority cannot wait for reconciliation to go ahead with elections because municipal services and capabilities cannot be allowed to be stunted indefinitely.

"We cannot keep these municipalities on hold. Reconciliation is important but you need to look after the local water, garbage collection, electricity, and streets. We have to freshen our mandate for our municipal leaders. It's what democracy is all about," he says.

Facing growing economic discontent at home and a deadlock in negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority sees the local elections as providing it with a potential, if limited, boost.

''What we are seeing is confirmation of the reality that there is no reconciliation in sight,'' says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

After going so long without reconciliation, the self-ruled areas appear to be moving towards becoming two distinct entities.

''In practice [moving apart] is what's happening, though it is not taking place officially, and not in a declared way,'' says Hani Masri, head of the Badael (Alternatives) think tank in Ramallah.

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.

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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