After years of gloom, Palestine woke up this week to a celebration never before witnessed. Huge signs of leading candidates to presidency have replaced posters of martyrs and Intifada graffiti. Local newspapers are also full of advertisements with headlines like: “Ending the occupation”, “Security for the citizen”, “Reform and development” (Mahmoud Abbas). Or Tayseer Khaled’s –” the candidate for change –” “No peace without Jerusalem which is the jewel of the nation and the root of our existence”. The candidate of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine even advertises his e-mail and website: www.vote-tayseer.com.
If you are travelling from Ramallah to Jerusalem, and just before you reach the Qalandia checkpoint, you are greeted by the face of Bassam Salahi, the candidate of the People’s Party, with Jerusalem in the background, insisting that if elected, he will insist on the inclusion of Jerusalem in the Palestinian state.
Mustafa Barghouthi’s face is also all over sidewalks and billboards. His election campaign calls on voters to “put the case (meaning the Palestinian case) in trustworthy hands”. Barghouthi, however, has been ahead of all the other candidates in using satellite Arab television stations to advertise his campaign.
An unusual candidate for the elections is Dr Abdel Halim Ashqar who is under house arrest in the United States. He is hoping to get votes from Islamists by advertising that he is an independent Islamic candidate. His campaign slogan is: “They have restricted my movement but they can’t restrict my voice.”
While many candidates talk about continuing the legacy of Yasser Arafat, Abu Mazen is the only one with photos with the late president and the subheadline talking about their lifetime comradeship.
The wall and settlements feature in many advertisements, with many candidates insisting that they are opposed to the wall, to settlements and to land confiscation.
The news pages are also full of reports of this candidate visiting this location and this community or group supporting him.
Elections in Jerusalem are also the talk of the town. Unlike in 1996, this time around, there seems to be a much higher interest many Palestinians in Jerusalem have in voting. This excitement is felt mostly among the young people, many of whom will be voting for the first time in their lives, especially since they don’t participate in the elections for the Jerusalem Municipality organized by the Israelis.
A strong victory for Mahmoud Abbas will be a clear change in direction for the Palestinian national cause. Unlike the expectations of some, the rhetoric of Abu Mazen with regards to his opposition to the militarization of the Intifada has not been diluted since the election campaign began. In fact, at least in one closed meeting with 160 businessmen in Ramallah, the front runner for the post of president said that there must be a clear end to the Intifada. And while other candidates are promising the electorate the moon, Abu Mazen has not even spoken of the word right of return, choosing, instead, to say that he is in favor of a just solution to the refugee problem agreed to by the two sides and in accordance to UN Resolution 194.
Abbas has also cancelled a favorite political term of the previous leadership, the Arabic word “thawbet”, which means the immovable issues, used in reference to issues like Jerusalem and refugees. For the current chairman of the PLO, politics can’t be frozen and one must be flexible. Instead, of the “thawbet”, Abu Mazen says he prefers the word “rights in accordance to international law”.
The general discussion, however, is centered much more on the next phase of the political process; discussions these days are centered on the post-Jan. 9 elections whose winner is clear in most everybody’s mind. But while Abbas’ victory is all but assured, the two questions that are being discussed are what percentage he will get and who will be the number two winner, even though most believe it will be a distant second.
Changes are starting to appear in the Palestinian officialdom. Ahmed Qureia, the prime minister, is rarely appearing in the media and Saeb Erekat is also absent. Yosef Naser, a member of the Fateh Central Committee and a senior general from Gaza, seems to be on the rise these days, running the election campaign for Abu Mazen.
The election season has left a clear mark on the Palestinian population. It has allowed for some breathing space even though travel restrictions have not yet eased for Palestinians.
Most people discussing this upcoming period talk about the coming Abu Mazen administration and what it will do in terms of negotiations with the Israelis, restoration of the rule of law and personal security, and the general improvement in the quality of life. Much of the optimism is based on the general support that the international community has given to Abu Mazen.