Palestinian Elections pose challenges for secular liberals

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — With January 25, 2006 set as the new date for Palestinian parliamentary elections, most talk has been about what the ruling Fateh faction can do to stop the apparently inexorable rise in popularity of the opposition Hamas Islamists.
Indeed, the delay in holding the elections originally slated for this past July 17 — while technically for lack of agreement in parliament over a new elections law — was widely seen as having been forced by Fateh determination to gain more time to gather its fractured self together to meet exactly that challenge. As the ruling faction, Fateh has found itself almost inextricably identified with the Palestinian Authority, and widespread accusations of corruption, mismanagement, and cronyism has reflected poorly on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ faction.

Hamas, meanwhile, has taken full advantage, and ran its municipal election campaigns almost entirely on a political platform of honesty and administrative integrity. Initially deeply hostile to the delay, Hamas has seen no dip in its own popularity and appears as committed as before to the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, which it sees as a major step on the way to internal and international legitimacy.

The overwhelming focus on these two “movements,” as they like to characterise themselves, has however left people convinced by neither, desperate for an alternative.

Attempts have been made in recent weeks by many of the smaller factions to forge an alliance, or common front, to present a credible challenge from the liberal spectrum.

So far these efforts have been in vain, though according to Bassam Salhi, head of the Palestinian People’s Party on August 30, negotiations with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) were ongoing.

Salhi had competed against Tayseer Khalid of the DFLP in January’s presidential elections, but both got less than three percent of votes. By far the strongest showing in those elections, which were boycotted by the Islamist opposition, and outside Abu Mazen’s winning percentage, was the 20 per cent garnered by Mustafa Barghouthi and his Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) group. The percentage is proof, Barghouthi says, that there is a strong popular desire for a third alternative, and that that alternative already exists in the form of the PNI.

“There is a huge silent majority who are neither with Fateh or Hamas,” Barghouthi told The Jordan Times. “People want an alternative, and as we proved at the presidential elections, PNI provides it.”

Barghouthi says he would welcome “as broad a coalition as possible” around the PNI’s political platform of national liberation, social justice and “a firm commitment to democracy at all levels,” but believe factionalism on the political scene is tribal rather than political and is thus holding back the formation of such a broad coalition.

“A coalition means people must get over their factionalism and egocentrism. Egocentrism exists, but the biggest problem is factionalism, which is tribal and not political in nature.”

If such a broad coalition could be formed and stay independent — “not accepting to sit in government unless as a true coalition partner” — it could put in a strong showing in parliamentary elections, Barghouthi said. But if it can’t, he added, opposition votes will go to Hamas.

Political analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi is anything but sanguine about the chances of such a coalition being formed.

What he calls the “progressive, secular” forces are suffering from a crisis of leadership and “ultimately it is about ego.”

“There is a crisis of leadership and mainly it has to do with personal style. Will it be Mustafa [Barghouthi] with Hanan [Ashrawi]? Will it be Hanan with Iyad Sarraj? Maybe Marwan [Barghouthi] will leave Fateh? Ultimately it’s about sharing the house and a problem of ego. No one wants to share what he has or accommodate the other.”

Abdul Hadi, who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, also said the progressive parties are shying away from addressing many fundamental issues.

“Palestine is rooted firmly in an Arab-Muslim culture. So how should a framework for the relationship between religion and state be formulated by the secular? What about the issue of two-state versus one-state solution? Should we look west and ask for civil rights in a large Israel? Or look east for a confederation [with Jordan]? These are very important issues that no one is tackling.”

He projects that the next months before the January elections will see several groupings and regroupings as smaller factions and independents merge and split apart again. Such fragmentation will see Hamas remain the most viable opposition party come election time, though he does not believe this is a reflection of popular will.

“Palestinian society is largely secular. That [Hamas will be the most popular opposition choice] is a reflection of the splits within the progressive secular factions and not of Palestinian society.”

If such a split continues, says Barghouthi, it will serve not only to undermine any third alternative, but to further Israeli interests.

“It is in Israel’s interests to present the Palestinian people as either fundamentalists or corrupt authoritarians. And it is a narrative that is being furthered by the international media, which paid scant attention to the PNI in the presidential elections.”

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