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
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
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