Palestinians held the second phase of their municipal elections today, 5 May 2005. The official results are expected on May 8th, however exit polls indicate a close race between the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ party, Fateh. During the first phase of municipal elections held on 23 December 2004 and 27January 2005, Hamas secured a respectable 36 percent compared to Fateh’s 44 percent in the West Bank. Hamas won an overwhelming 64 percent in the Gaza Strip. In last week’s student council elections, historically seen as a litmus test for political attitudes, Fateh and Hamas came out almost even in an overall comparison. Palestinian political observers argue that the results, both on the municipal and university levels, presents Fateh with a very tough political fight in the July 2005 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections. Fateh is plagued by internal friction and accusations of corruption and bad governance. Strong support for Hamas in the PLC elections could present Abbas with a powerful and legitimately elected political opposition that will challenge his domestic policies and style of negotiation toward Israel.
Municipal Elections: Current Phase
In today’s elections, the second of four phases, 2,519 candidates are vying for 906 seats in 84 municipal councils throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are 399 women running for local office. According to elections officials, nine women have automatically secured a council seat based on the quota allocation process. Some 400,000 Palestinians are eligible to vote in today’s elections. The third phase of municipal elections is scheduled to be held in September 2005, with the fourth and final phase to follow in December 2005.
Municipal Elections: Previous Phase
Hamas’ win in the first phase of municipal elections three months ago, along with the exit results of today’s race, cast a shadow over predictions that Hamas will not make significant gains in the upcoming legislative elections. Although Fateh won the majority of seats at a municipal level, Hamas’ performance in the December and January elections was strong. With an 81 percent turnout in the first phase of elections, Hamas won 75 of 118 municipal seats in the Gaza Strip compared to Fateh’s 39 seats. In the West Bank, Hamas won 109 of the total 306 seats, while Fateh secured 136 seats.
Given that the municipal elections are the first in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1976, political analysts have come to use the results of university elections as an indictor of Palestinian political attitudes.
In the past two weeks, student body elections were held in Palestinian universities. The results showed that support for Hamas and Fateh were almost equal. Fateh’s campaigns in Nablus’ an-Najah University and Abu Dis’ Al-Quds University shed light on the internal crisis the party is facing. The Fateh bloc in an-Najah University chose Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Fateh leader and one-time presidential challenger to Abbas, as their campaign’s leading image. In Al-Quds University, the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was the figure used to rally support among students.
In West Bank universities, the results were close but there were no landslide victories like in the Gaza Strip. At Bir Zeit University, Fateh won 23 seats with Hamas close behind at 21 seats. At an-Najah University, Fateh’s 38-seat win was matched by Hamas’ 37 seats. The two major affiliations of students on the Al-Quds University student council are Fateh (26 officers) and Hamas (23 officers). At Bethlehem University, 15 seats went to Fateh, 10 went to Hamas. At Hebron University, Fateh controls 13 seats whereas Hamas holds 25 seats. At Hebron’s Technical College, Fateh won 14 seats, Hamas 16.
In Gaza’s Al Azhar University, Fateh won all 36 seats. However, in the Islamic University of Gaza, Hamas won all 24 seats.
Recent reports from the Occupied Palestinian Territories claim that Abbas is trying to convince Hamas privately to agree to support his alleged desire to postpone the PLC elections. Insiders say Fateh is concerned that it will be unable to "get its house in order" before the July elections, giving Hamas an opportunity to score a considerable victory in the legislature. According to some Palestinian officials, Hamas has so far refused to comply with Abbas’ request, reminding him that the group’s cease-fire is contingent on July elections.
Hamas is not alone in its demand to hold elections on schedule. According to a 28 April 2005 poll by the Development Studies Programme at Bir Zeit University, 84 percent of Palestinians support holding the PLC elections on 17 July 2005. Seventy-three percent said they plan to participate in the elections. However, based on the responses of the 1,200 people surveyed, Fateh will receive 41 percent of the vote, Hamas 23 percent. The poll points to an interesting revelation that could prove helpful to either Hamas or Fateh: 30 percent said they were undecided.
Hamas Enters the Domestic Political Fray
Palestinians are divided over the impact that Hamas’ decision to enter Palestinian political arena will have on Fateh. Some believe it will bring a fragmented Fateh together, reinforcing the spirit of internal unity. Others see it as a development that will encourage competition, further fragmenting the group. The latter group bases its belief on the fact that the "glue," referring to Arafat, which held the "always internally divided" Fateh intact in the past, is no longer alive to keep Fateh together.
Hamas seems to be responding to the regional political changes. Following in steps of Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas is taking advantage of the opportunity to transform itself from a charitable, resistance group to a political power. Hamas believes it needs to get involved with the Palestinian political process because its future is linked to the Palestinian territory and its constituency in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Fateh and Abbas: A Troubled Political Future?
How much of a threat does Hamas, whose street credibility comes from its charitable services, religious piety, and ongoing resistance to the occupation, pose to Fateh? According to Bir Zeit University’s Development Studies poll, Fateh should not be ruled out.
The poll found that a majority of Palestinians trust Fateh to achieve success in four areas of concern to them: 70 percent said they rely on Fateh to provide progress in the peace process; 57 percent looked to Fateh for maintaining national unity; 53 percent believe Fateh will carry out internal reforms; and 57 percent trust Fateh to improve the economy.
Fifty-three percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip blame Israel for Abbas’ inability to carry out his campaign promises to date. Abbas ran in January 2005 on a platform of non-violence, reform, and a negotiated peace settlement with Israel. The survey showed that Palestinians still hold hope in Abbas, as 61 percent believe that peace negotiations with Israel will resume under Abbas and 57 percent believe that he will improve the performance of the Cabinet and governmental institutions.
Abbas’ future and that of Fateh may depend on Israel and the United States. For Abbas to become the new "glue" holding Fateh together, to carry out the needed reforms, and to keep Hamas at bay, he needs Israel to abide by its commitments to withdraw from Palestinians cities, remove checkpoints, release Palestinian political prisoners, and enter into final status talks. He also needs the U.S. administration’s political and financial backing.