While the eyes of the world are focusing on the Jan. 9 Palestinian presidential elections, two much more important dates in 2005 have been largely ignored. Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) have been set for May 2005 and the General Assembly of the Fateh movement is scheduled for August 2005. While the winner of the presidential elections, Mahmoud Abbas, (Abu Mazen) might have been expected, (despite the renomination of Marwan Barghouthi), there is a major mystery as to which individuals or group of individuals will come out victorious in the two elections planned for next summer.
While elections for the PLC (as well as for the president of the Palestinian National Authority) are long overdue, the decision to set a date for elections is due in large part to pressure from the Islamic movements. Hamas, which has been enthusiastically supporting the idea of municipal elections, argued that its opposition to the participation in the presidential elections is due to the fact that the current parliament, which was elected in 1996, will vote confidence in whoever will be the new president of the PNA. After the retraction of Hamas in the student council elections at Al Najah University, the Islamic Resistance Movement might not have wanted to field a candidate who would loose the presidential elections. But it is correct in its assessment that the new Palestinian president will not have the powers to make major changes if the parliament will not cooperate with him or her.
Actually Abbas doesn’t necessarily need to win the upcoming presidential elections to wield considerable power in the coming years. After all, the current prime minister, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala’a), who succeeded in wrestling financial powers from Yasser Arafat, is now also in control of the security forces, now that he is heading the National Security Council. And as the chairman of the PLO executive committee, Abbas who signed on behalf of the PLO all agreements with Israel, will be in direct charge of any future talks with the Israelis. So the Fateh movement, whether through the PLC which it controls, the government which it heads or the PLO which it shares, will continue to wield real power.
This means that the general assembly, which will be held next August, will be a major turning point for the movement and for Palestinians. The decision to hold the sixth general assembly was not easy. The last general assembly (the highest body in the Fateh movement) was held outside of Palestine in 1988 and most of the members of the central committee did not show eagerness to have seats in this important leadership committee challenged by the younger Palestinian-based members. In fact, the initial nomination of Barghouthi was largely a political tactic to force his own movement to decide on a date for holding the general assembly. And while it has been revealed that most of the central committee members of Fateh were not in favour of the convening of the assembly, it was Abbas who is said to have made the decision which led, among other things, to Barghouthi’s earlier decision to withdrawing his offer. His latest decision to run as an independent is again seen as an attempt to get the old guard to show more respect to the young Fateh leaders.
Of course, some in Fateh wanted the General Assembly to be held prior to the PLC elections. But the decision to hold the legislative elections first will favour young Fateh activists who also have strong backing from the Palestinian public at large and are not dependent solely on fellow cadres. Of course, the Fateh meeting will also include those outside of Palestine, and it is not clear whether that meeting will be held in Palestine or not.
What the Fateh movement will decide on is not a new set of leadership but a general strategic approach for this liberation faction. One crucial decision that Fateh will need to consider is whether it will want to transform itself into a political party. Arafat was adamant against such an idea, insisting that his movement represents all walks of political life who are dedicating to liberating Palestine from the Israeli occupation and that only after liberation can the idea of becoming a party with a distinct ideological colour to it be implemented.
The present presidential elections are important on a number of levels. They will certainly give legitimacy, from the people, to whoever is elected. The campaign itself will be extremely important in that it will lay down the various issues of concern to the Palestinians. And while the political sphere will be the main focus of the upcoming elections, it has already become clear that social and economic issues will be featured in the platforms of a number of candidates as well.
By nature, presidential elections focus on general and national issues, rather than local and life-related issues. The smooth transfer of power after Arafat’s death has been welcomed by Palestinians and our friends around the world. The success of the democratic process in the presidential poll and later the legislative and Fateh internal processes will be an important indication as to the general direction that Palestinians are planning to take in the future.