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Obstacles to Poll Threaten The Palestinian Authority

Leaders in the autonomy zones see elections as crucial to verifying their legitmacy, but Israelis worry about the Palestinian drive for statehood

PALESTINIANS are eager to hold elections to establish a legitimate government.

But their steps toward the ballot box are hampered both by political infighting and by wrangling with Israel over a date for the vote and the underlying conflict of sovereignty.

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Under the peace deal signed in Washington Sept. 13, 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed to hold general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within seven months to choose a council to oversee self-rule.

Because earlier stages of the peace deal were implemented late, elections also have been delayed. Palestinians accuse Israel of purposely stalling on talks about the poll, while Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin accuses the PLO of attempting to use the elections as a symbol of Palestinian sovereignty.

On Sept. 10, the Palestinian Authority (PA) unilaterally decided to hold elections within three months, but the terms of the balloting and responsibilities of the council still must be negotiated with Israel.

On Sept. 17, Azmi Shuabi, head of the PA's Sports and Youth Department, announced negotiations with Israel will begin Sept. 28 - a date apparently agreed on in Oslo Sept. 13 by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

A delay of the elections poses a serious dilemma for the Palestinian leadership. While the PLO, which has long been perceived by the Palestinians as the source of political legitimacy, is rapidly disintegrating, the newly set up PA lacks adequate popular legitimacy, since it was formed in accordance with Israeli terms, ordinary and official Palestinians say.

``When the PA was established, it was agreed that the PLO institutions would be its reference and its source of Palestinian legitimacy,'' says Tayseer Arouri, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. ``But as we witness the PLO demise, popular legitimacy is the only way out of this current crisis.''

``[Arafat] has to assert to the world that he has popular legitimacy and to his people that the PA is not merely implementing Israeli policies,'' one senior Palestinian official explains.

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Arafat's opponents have long accused him of putting off the elections to ensure the longevity of his leadership and perpetuate his style of patronage system.

But if that were true, then the PLO leader has changed his mind. In Arafat's view, his aides say, elections will help gain international financial support by quelling complaints from donor countries that fear a legitimate self-rule council is not in place.

``Elections will consolidate the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership and will assert a democratic system. We have already asked the United States and Russia [the cosponsors of the peace talks] to intervene and asked Israel not to delay the elections,'' Nabil Abu Radeineh, Arafat's spokesman says.

Arafat, who has survived many challenges in the past, is encouraged by an August poll, conducted by the Nablus-based Center for Palestinian Studies, showing that Fatah, Arafat's PLO mainstream group, is expected to win 60 percent of the votes.

But many analysts warn that Fatah's popularity will rapidly drop if the elections are postponed and Arafat does not deliver improved economic conditions and an end of Israel's occupation to his people.

Arafat's aides are said to be conducting extensive contacts with opposition groups to involve them in the elections - since the opposition's participation will imply acceptance of the PA.

Most leftist groups now say that they will only participate in the polls if the elections aim to produce a legislative council.

The Oslo agreement, signed in Washington last year, provided the suggested council with some limited legislative authorities, while the Cairo pact, signed last May, referred to an administrative council rather than a legislative council and thus seemed to curtail the authority of the council.

Many Palestinians fear the council will be merely an administrative one charged with executing the Palestinian-Israeli agreement.

But the Palestinian opposition, which consists of at least six groups, has not reached a unified position on the elections. Hamas, the leading Islamic opposition group, which has never joined the PLO, is anticipating taking part in the ballot.

``The Islamic movement will take part if the council will have a legislative power,'' says Hamas spokesman Ismail Haniyeh.

Many analysts believe Hamas prefers to participate in the elections to consolidate its standing, and even to put to test its seven-year contest for leadership of the Palestinian people with the PLO.

But leftist groups maintain that their participation will hinge on the kind of terms and agreement reached with Israel.

``If the terms are based on the Oslo agreement, then our party will consider taking part,'' says Dr. Arouri, who belongs to the leftist Palestine People's Party (former Communist Party) ``But if not, then we are likely to boycott the elections.''

Opponents of the Oslo agreement, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine are more reluctant. ``The elections, according to the Oslo agreement, will only give legitimacy to an agreement we reject,'' says Nihad Abu Ghosh, the DFLP spokesman.

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