by Fathi Darwish
On January 9, 2005, the Palestinians elected a successor to their departed president, Yasser Arafat. The event was significant not only because it showed Palestinian democracy at work, but also because for Israel a democratic Palestine with an invigorated and engaged civil society could herald progress toward reconciliation, and could augur well for the establishment of two states for two peoples. For the international community, which sent neutral monitors to oversee the legitimacy and transparency of the elections, the event could translate into increased stability, security and prosperity in the Palestinian territories. With the election of a moderate leader, the international community should now recognize that this is what truly represents the Palestinian people’s will and not disregard the faith Palestinians have in their new leader and in his platform.
Hope is high among the Palestinian people that these free elections have brought in a leadership with a mandate to end their suffering, to go back to the Road Map and to the table of negotiations in order to achieve a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestine and end the occupation. On the domestic front, good governance will also, hopefully, put an end to the chaos, violence and economic disaster.
In 1996, the Palestinians held their first presidential elections. At the time, two candidates ran for the post: Yasser Arafat and Samiha al-Khalil. About 1,1 million people voted back then — almost unanimously for Arafat. This time, seven candidates presented themselves and an estimated 1,6 million Palestinians cast their votes at close to 1,000 voting stations.
A Veteran Statesman
Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), official candidate of Fateh, the largest Palestinian political party, won by a large margin. He is one of the founding members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); he was also the key negotiator of Oslo, the first Palestinian prime minister and, the head of the PLO since Arafat’s death. As a Palestinian politician who has strongly and consistently condemned the militarization of the intifada and specifically suicide attacks against civilians on moral grounds, Abu Mazen is respected throughout the world as a dignitary with a strong diplomatic track record. Although he represents the “old guard,” he is said to embody the ideas of the silent majority of Palestinians and was rightfully regarded as the “heir” to the leadership, an important point given the traditional and tribal values of Palestinian society.
Marwan Barghouti was a major contender but opted to withdraw his candidacy and to endorse Fateh’s official candidate. According to one poll, his withdrawal bumped Abu Mazen’s lead to 61.8 percent. In a way it was a wise decision, for Barghouti will play an important role in the future. He supports a two-state solution and was one of the first local leaders to endorse Oslo and negotiate with the Israelis. Palestinians empathize with his plight and respect his grassroots appeal. For his part, Barghouti understands that the Palestinian people need a head of state who will be able to represent them in the corridors of power. In this respect, Abu Mazen has a clear advantage: he has international stature; he commands the respect that comes with seniority in Palestinian institutions; and is viewed as exceptionally non-corruptible. Many Palestinians are fed up with the disastrous results of the occupation, the violence of the intifada and the anarchy of arms, all of which Abu Mazen has consistently denounced. For the first time since the year 2000, a majority of Palestinians condemn suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.
However, observers should not underestimate the serious challenges facing Abu Mazen. There are three major ones: the Hamas boycott of the elections, difficulties in rallying Fateh grass-roots supporters, and the overall complacency of ordinary citizens.
Hamas called for the boycott of the presidential elections, arguing they emanated from the “illegal” Oslo agreement. Yet Hamas has agreed to participate in municipal and parliamentary elections, which are also structured pursuant to Oslo. The real reason for the boycott by Hamas would appear to be the absence of any viable presidential contender, and its support among the population is far less than the attention it gets from the media. Still, Hamas’ official boycott of the elections was an astute strategy to attribute any strong showing by Abu Mazen to their lack of participation, thus undermining his legitimacy.
Abu Mazen has always been more of a statesman and leader and less of a grassroots politician. This could potentially pose a problem within his own faction, Fateh. Some of its members might feel uncomfortable showing excessive support in his favor, for fear that too big a mandate would give him too much power, and would enable him to carry out reforms that some do not favor.
But the biggest challenge of all is the complacency of moderate elements in Palestinian society. Time and time again, history has shown that in the most critical junctures, extremists have completely mobilized to derail progress for conflict resolution, while moderates have taken things for granted and passively sat on the sidelines. Luckily, the fear that without enough attention to this problem, moderate citizens would take Abu Mazen’s lead for granted and stay home, while extremists and opponents garnered all their energy to maximize their showing, did not materialize.
Under Palestinian constitutional law, a simple majority is sufficient for a candidate to be elected. Nevertheless, a strong mandate for a moderate pragmatic Palestinian leader drives home the point that the Israeli people now have a partner for negotiations, prompting Israelis to push their own leaders to support negotiations. Even more important, a wider and stronger mandate will enable the new president to carry out much-needed internal reforms and take steps to buttress good governance, transparency, respect for the rule of law, as well as to fight corruption and the anarchy of arms.
In an encouraging step, the Israelis agreed to ease movement for 72 hours across checkpoints within the West Bank and Gaza to facilitate the voting process, and also allowed Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote. Further goodwill gestures like the release of prisoners and the permission for Palestinian guest workers into Israel can bolster Palestinian trust in the path toward reconciliation.
At the end of the day, the gain for Palestinian citizens as part of a civil society was the participation in a historic opportunity to guarantee democracy and accountability for their will. This is a rare gift for all of us in the silent majority whose voices are constantly drowned by radical extremist minorities on both sides. These elections gave us the chance to be heard by the world. OneVoice, a nongovernmental organization with 58,000 members, worked tirelessly to ensure that the vote of the silent majority would indeed, be heard, deploying its network of activists to boost citizen awareness of their responsibility and power to impact their life, under the banner, “Raise your voice and participate to create your future.”