Upcoming Palestinian Elections Might Put Extremists In Power

The Palestinian Fatah Movement is doing whatever it can to brush up its image in the run up to this Summer's parliamentary elections, including the appointment of young blood into the ranks. The outcome of the elections is going to be of crucial importance for the chances of peace with Israel as well as the country's division of power. What would be the implications for a Palestine under more Islamicised rule, should Hamas achieve a much feared majority? And will the electoral map show that Islamists are on the rise mainly as a result of corruption and poverty?

The happenings in Palestine are going eerily exactly according to a master plan drawn up two years ago by the murdered Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. This leader drew out his vision for power sharing and legitimization of the Hamas organisation, starting by condoning to a ceasefire and subsequently by readying the organization for participation in mainstream politics. Next on the plan is slowly eating away power remaining in the hands of the Fatah movement. More on the bright side; Yassin also did not exclude acceptance of a two state solution. But, his condition is nevertheless worrisome ? only as an interim solution.

It is not sure whether the Hamas movement would have found its way to the political arena had Fatah been enjoying a deeper political clout and a popularity akin to Hamas among the Palestinians. Some say it would have, because there is an ongoing collaboration between the two groups in attacks on Israel. But the fact that the political Fatah movement is losing its grip over the political reality in Palestine might in some sense be not only very convenient for the Hamas movement, it might also indicate that reality on the ground doesn't just change overnight and that it takes a troop of bandits a lot of guts to organize themselves, steer clear of its former methods of communication and get a country going at the same time.

This, combined with Yassin's ability to mastermind his future plan so indicates sharply how the land lies in Palestine. It is estimated that around 40 percent of Palestinians support Hamas but support is disproportionately strong in the Gaza Strip where some 1.3 million Palestinians live.

One positive side effect from having seen the Fatah movement struggle is that Hamas knows what kind of trouble it's up for. This might already be evident from the January 2004 adoption of a more moderate stance by Yassin, months before he was killed, when he reduced the area he wished to see reclaimed from the whole of Israel to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "We are leaving the rest of the occupied territories for history," Yassin said in an interview with the London-based Arabic language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

Some see this as the most significant item on Yassin's master plan. "[Yassim implicitly acknowledges] the PLO's 1988 decision to endorse the two-state solution," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. The two state solution includes a Palestinian state on all territory occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a solution to the issue of refugees to be found according to international law based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

"Regardless of whether or not this is explicitly acknowledged by Hamas as a permanent or temporary solution, it will become the movement's operational political guideline", predicts Mahdi Abdul Hadi. That in itself is quite an evolution for a movement that refused to take part in the last elections in 1996 saying they objected to Oslo Accords because these condoned the existence of Israel.

One can't help but get a sense that any potential Hamas leaders will likely go about things in a way swifter manner than the Fatah stumblings have shown Palestinian leadership to be so far. Throughout the Middle East the fact that subversive to the state groupings have been forced underground has given them a chance to organize themselves really well. They also tend to endear themselves to populations in times of severe duress and hardship by well funded relief efforts and other charitable initiatives, which make them look incredibly social compared to corrupted governments.

The Hamas movement set to benefit from its popularity for a while to come, while incumbent leaders have seen to have become increasingly entrapped in a downward spiral. As the elections are nearing, true panic is setting in among the participant of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, where the day to day infighting between old and new guard will soon have to make way for some pragmatism - if they want to hold on to any majority in the PLO whatsoever. Policy makers are doing their utmost in trying to delay the elections or even change the rules to the disfavor of Hamas, which are schuduled for July 17, almost coinciding with the date the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will take place, purportedly to take political advantage of this.

Ironically, the Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, faced with what's an almost surely record historical amount of disloyalty at home, is also putting difficult things off. He has put back the withdrawal from Gaza by another three weeks for pretty much opposite reasons. Some even believe that Sharon is moving the date back in case Hamas comes out so strongly in the elections that he will abandon the settlement closure altogether.

Whatever will be the outcome of the Palestinian elections, or however violent the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will prove to be, will largely determine the chances for any the direct peace talks to be restarted. The outlook on this issue now is very bleak.

"If the nationalist Fatah is defeated -- or seriously challenged -- by Islamist Hamas, the chance of getting a state could be set back by decades. Nationalists would be too intimidated to make the compromises needed to achieve peace or, even worse, the opportunists among them could see an alliance with Hamas as the way to gain power for themselves. Hamas itself would believe it can take over the entire movement, making it more violent against Israel and aggressive toward other Palestinians", says Barry Rubin in a commentary on UPI.

The incumbent leadership has recently started serious efforts to counter the notion that is very much alive among the Palestinian population that its supporting Fatah party is in a total mess. The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' recent drastic reorganization of the national security is one sign to this effect. Furthermore, on Tuesday, the movement announced the names of younger generation of leaders who would probably be chosen to run in the election, replacing the old guard that has been accused of corruption and mismanagement. "We consider this as a correct start to rebuild (Fatah) on a democratic base," said Ahmed Deek, a senior Fatah official to Reuters.

The the old guard, who have nearly all been chosen directly by Yassir Arafat, are heavily criticized for corruption and their weak efforts to build the Palestinian economy. These issues are more long term and it is likely that the Palestinian voters are more forgiving here than on the more immediate threats they face every day through dangerous militancy. This militancy is alive in both Hamas factions as well as the Fatah movement. It is of crucial importance for the Fatah movement to pull itself together and deliver a credible message to voters if the current leadership is going to outcompete the Hamas message, which Palestinians are believed to favor momentarily.

Somehow, the old trick of blaming all Palestinian misfortunes of the Israelis is not going to work as well for Mr Abbas as it did for Yasser Arafat. What's more, Mr Abbas also has a lot less clout than Mr Arafat in organizing his support. "Arafat, who was unchallengeable, could get away with anything. Abbas has no such luxury", Hadi believes.

Political analysts differ over the chances that Hamas might become a majority party in Palestine. Should the party be successful however, more or less similar bleak realities will await it as were bestowed on the incumbent leaders. People talking about a 'price' that politicizing the movement will have, mostly are concerned with two things; peacetalks with Israel (Yassin's plan was to steer clear of any Oslo principles) and democratization and reform.

Even though it is enticing to think that the surfacing of this organization is going to be a healthy thing both for the Palestinian society and for the grouping as such, these worries remain significant because of their potential long term impact. The classic example of things getting completely out of hand in a democratic context is Algeria, where in 1992, the incumbent Islamist rulers canceled free elections when it became clear they would not win outright. This example is quoted very often, but given the ensuing violence in this country it is not overstating just how dangerous and inhumane a system can get.

"There is always a question mark over whether Islamists who take power by democratic means are committed to maintaining parliamentarian democracy, or to changing the system to an Islamic regime, which is a different proposition", says Hassan Ghatib.

The Algerian situation followed the regime change in Iran in the 1970s, which itself somewhat tested the limits to autocratic rule and given the fact that in every situation where there is a chance of extremism this gets overt attention and analysis there is a lot of scope for prominent thinkers from within the Islamic movements to shape their ideas.

The most prominent issue is how to share power, remain loyal to a constitution without imposing social rules that contradict this. This is an area of friction, because the very idea around which Hamas' ideology revolves does not naturally imply that it will steer away from wanting to establish a completely Islamicised state, rather than a democracy as the constitution stipulates. Even though there is consensus that Islamic movements also can bend their party manifestos around the idea of democracy, it is a means to an end.

"It is possible that Hamas, which so far maintains a fundamentalist ideological and extreme political position, will become a pragmatic movement if it has the chance to be part of official politics, locally, regionally and internationally", says Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Authority minister of planning.

The question really is what kind of powerbase the group will be able to build. Should the inclusion of the party in the mainstream sector immediately be on the basis of majority rule, it would be most dangerous, because it then has a chance to help shape a democracy according to possibly less democratic but more Islamist principles. It is not immediately obvious how that would improve the internal Palestinian situation or, more like, how it would move forward the democratization and reform process which the country is crying out for. But then, who knows, perhaps real change, Islamist style, is even possible.

Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer working for http://www.contentClix.com. She specialises in content creation. For tailormade reports, brochures, research or feature articles, contact her on [email protected].

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