Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Carnival of Destiny--Palestine Goes to the Polls

photo:Mohammed Omer
Voters' fingers were dipped in indelible ink to prevent double-voting. Everyone, even those dismayed by Hamas's unexpected landslide victory in the January 25 Parliamentary elections, agreed the election had been honest, orderly, transparent and free of fraud.

Mohammed Omer's election-day report of the final week of campaigning was published in Norwegian in Morgenbladet on Friday, 27 January. Morgenbladet stretched its normal deadlines almost to the breaking point, but Hamas's caution in declaring victory meant Mohammed had to file his copy pre-Thursday night's official speeches

The Carnival of Destiny: Palestine Goes to the Polls
by Mohammed Omer
Reporting from the Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine

The scene was played out with only small variations through January in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: the establishment party, Fatah, would race into town in a convoy of limousines with a police escort, sirens blaring. Crowds would gather for a campaign rally, complete with The Candidate's stump speech, before his bodyguards hustled him back to his limo to roar on to the next stop. In case anyone failed to get the message, sound trucks blaring campaign songs and slogans trundled through the streets, often late into the evening. Children found it amusing, while their elders enjoyed or resented their captive-audience status.

The less affluent, but highly disciplined and organized Hamas candidates, were as loud at their rallies, but sent out fewer sound trucks. Branded a "terrorist" group by Israel, the United States, and the EU, the Hamas candidates have run as independents on the Change and Reform slate. Although the resistance group's official charter calls for continuing armed struggle against Israel, they have scrupulously avoided armed attacks since February and their candidates for Parliament have concentrated on local issues, promising a corruption-free government, an end to cronyism, more jobs and civil order.

As campaigning drew to a close this week, polls showed Hamas making impressive gains. Local, Israeli, and international election-watchers predicted a too-close-to-call cliffhanger. The Change and Reform slate might become a strong enough presence in Parliament to demand power-sharing with Fatah. And there were several secularist slates who might win 10% to 15% of the vote. Some expressed fears that a strong showing for Hamas would bring about a "Taliban-style" theocracy, yet Hussam Al Tawil, 40, a Greek Orthodox Christian from Gaza, is running on the Hamas slate. "I'm proud of and loyal to my Christianity," he said, "but these are political issues, and my Church doesn't mind my running with Hamas. I certainly don't have a "Christian speech" and a "Muslim speech"—we are all Palestinians, and we must exercise our right to democracy together and choose the best people." While a few Hamas candidates promise a Quran-governed state, most have said nothing about lifestyle issues like mandatory veils for all women, preferring to concentrate on jobs, civil order and clean government. And all analysts expected a victorious Hamas to seek Cabinet-level posts dealing with domestic matters like Education, Health, and Welfare, letting the Fatah old-guard handle direct negotiations with Israel.

Regardless, Fatah wasn't gaining the lead it sought. So in the waning days of the campaign, Fatah said Hamas would refuse to negotiate with Israel for Palestinians to work in the cross-border "industrial zones." Then, citizens in Gaza and the West Bank saw the edifying sight of the suddenly-humble Candidate walking on his own two imported-leather-shod feet down the narrow alleys of poor neighborhoods. No Mercedes with red government plates, no bodyguards, no police escorts. Just The Candidate, reborn as a man of the people, nodding to one and all, talking with ordinary citizens who normally couldn't hope for a moment of his time. In Rafah, The Candidate passed bullet-riddled homes before reaching his destination, a haircutter's shop, the well-known gathering-place for young men. Smiling, nodding, paying the normal price—no special privileges for The Candidate!--he sat down to have his hair trimmed and give his campaign speech.

photo: Mohammed Omer
The militant factions scrupulously kept their promise of a violence-free election. The same people who had threated violence a week before checked their guns and voted peacefully.

His audience started peppering him with tough, specific questions. Voters 18-25 make up about 30% of the electorate and most of them have been passionately following the campaigns. "Change now!" has been the theme of their demands—as The Candidate learned to his sorrow. He tried to keep his smile intact as he discovered platitudes and slogans were accomplishing nothing with this audience. Their support would be crucial if he hoped to win.

On the other side of Rafah, another Candidate visited the divan—an extended-family gathering place—of one of Gaza's most powerful clans. Again, he came alone, the humble guest, there to persuade the entire family to vote for him. He began to recite his usual campaign promises when a young man interrupted him. Perhaps he was 20, or a bit older, but his black baseball cap and casual dress set him apart from the traditionally-clad elders.

"None of you Fatah men will help us," he declared. "I tried to see you a year ago. I needed your help in solving a simple problem. But I never spoke to you—you were always too busy."

The Candidate started to stammer a reply while his elderly hosts smiled gently. The young man wasn't finished. "The last time I visited your office, your staff told me never to come back. When I phoned, they told me not to call again. So there you are, just a mid-level government manager, but too busy to help a citizen. Of course, you have a nice office, and a staff to get rid of ordinary people. Now, if you become a member of Parliament, you really will be important! You'll have even more office workers to throw me out. So why should I believe you'll help me?"

The Candidate flushed with anger, but said not a word. He stood, bowed his thanks to his hosts, and left. A few feet from the divan's entrance, a bodyguard opened the Mercedes door for him and his driver whisked him away—to that comfortable office, no doubt.

During these last-ditch campaign efforts, the Palestinian police, all 60,000 of them, voted early so they would be free on election day to guard the polling stations. Palestinian citizens who took intensive training to be official election observers voted early as well. The actual voting went smoothly, with 20,000 police guarding the polling places. Voter turnout was enormous, nearly 78% of registered voters. As many voters explained, this was the first Parliamentary election in a decade, and the first ever offering voters a real choice. Hamas and Fatah activists stood silently at the required distance from the polls, showing a sea of flags, green for Hamas and yellow for Fatah. Incidents were few, minor, and quickly resolved. Police in Khan Younis fired in the air as over-eager voters jostled to reach the polling place. In East Jerusalem, two extreme-right Israeli politicians attempted to force their way into a voting station, but 75 police blocked their way. The same armed militants who threatened violence last week checked their rifles with police and voted peacefully.

The shooting didn't start until after the polls closed when Fatah supporters, and even the Palestinian police started firing in the air to celebrate—prematurely—a Fatah victory. Based on several exit polls, Fatah was estimated to have won 63 of 132 Parliamentary seats, or 43%; Hamas had 58 seats, or nearly 40%, while the smaller parties were estimated to have some 11 seats. Hamas, however, refused to claim victory until the official results were announced. President Mahmoud Abbas, whose office was not in question, said a Hamas presence in Parliament meant peace negotiations with Israel would be endorsed by a broad spectrum of Palestinian society while US President Bush restated his refusal to deal with Hamas.

Despite the rhetoric from all parties, when the official results are finally announced, the one thing certain is that Palestine will finally have a multi-party legislature. No matter who is sharing power with whom, and no matter what domestic reforms may be enacted, the war-and-peace issues with Israel will be the unavoidable backdrop.


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