Palestinians try democratic elections as Israel watches

JERUSALEM — It's going to be the finest show of democracy the Arab world has ever known.

But in the best tradition of the Arab Middle East, there will be few surprises in the voting: The results are more or less a foregone conclusion.

Saturday, Jan. 20, as many as 1.2 million Palestinians will elect leaders for the first time in their troubled history — with Israel forced to act as a bystander.

Although the official campaigning began only this week, political competition has been in the air for the past few weeks.

Contrary to earlier fears, the campaigning has so far proceeded without bloodshed or bitter clashes, as if democracy has always been the name of the Palestinian political game.

In recent weeks, candidates for the Palestinian Council have filled newspapers with their photos, seeking support of the voters.

Suddenly, faces from the intifada — the bitter 1987-1993 uprising against Israeli administration of the West Bank and Gaza — have surfaced from deep underground to announce they are part of the legitimate political scene.

The elections pit 75 candidates from Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat's Al Fatah movement against 500 independents and 125 other candidates affiliated with a dozen mostly obscure parties.

Some 3,000 international supervisors, led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, are likely to encounter an election in which the rules of the game are generally played fairly — right down to the computerized ballots Japan provided.

But "generally" is a key qualifier, given that international observers to the elections have already criticized Arafat for making moves aimed at stacking the voting in his favor.

Palestinian voters will make two choices on election day.

They will elect candidates to serve on the 88-member Palestinian Council, the legislative body that will represent 16 electoral districts in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

They will also elect the president of the Palestinian Authority, who, along with being the 89th member of the council, will have executive authority over the body. Arafat now heads the PA.

The only challenger to Arafat for the presidency is Samiha Khalil, 72, a social activist from Ramallah who is expected to receive at best several thousand votes in her West Bank hometown. She opposed peace with Israel, and says she would break the two autonomy agreements if elected.

Unlike elections in the West, the candidates for the Palestinian Council only run nominally on their personal merits.

Instead, support for their candidacies will be based largely on backing by Arafat's Fatah establishment or from the support of the large clans — known as hamulas — in each of the 16 districts.

While candidates for the council will appear on the ballot as individuals, with no party affiliation, Fatah is circulating its own list of recommendations of who should be elected. The list was created as a result of earlier primaries.

But Arafat is maintaining strict control over Fatah's lists, and in some cases has removed some candidates from the recommended list.

Some candidates who were out of favor declared last week that they would run independently. But Fatah immediately countered that anyone who did so would no longer be allowed to return to the Fatah ranks.

Meanwhile, Fatah's main opponent, the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, has decided to stay out of the elections, though it announced it would not boycott them.

Fatah and Hamas representatives met last week in Cairo in an ultimately failed attempt to reach an agreement on the elections.

But the very fact that Hamas said it would not boycott the elections was regarded as yet another victory for Arafat, reflecting recognition by his strongest opposition that the elections were legitimate.

In addition, several Hamas members announced in the past few days that they would run as independents.

Those announcements prompted some Hamas leaders to brand them as traitors to the cause. In an apparent bow to those pressures, three of the candidates withdrew their names during the week.

Other Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process have also opted out of the elections, leaving a situation in which the only competition to Fatah will come from Communists and eight other insignificant splinter groups — none of which are expected to win many votes. Smaller groups include the Palestinian People's Party and the Movement for Building Democracy.

Arafat's critics say he and the Fatah leadership are using strongarm tactics to rule the streets and the polls.

"In Tulkarm, there is no political competition," said candidate Dr. Thabet Thabet. "There are 40 candidates — all Fatah candidates."

One of the more striking phenomena in Fatah's pre-election strategy is the absence of young leaders of the intifada from the candidate lists.

The youths who had carried the uprising on their shoulders, organizing mass demonstrations and waging stone-throwing wars against the Israelis (and serving prison sentences for their efforts), have suddenly found themselves displaced by older Fatah activists known for their close ties with Arafat's governing establishment.

Those frustrated activists will remain in the autonomous areas after the elections — and they may pose a potential threat to the new Palestinian leaders.

Some intifada leaders, such as Hatem Id of the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, have decided to run as independents.

Id, who served long prison sentences for his involvement in the intifada, won most of the votes in one of the Fatah primaries in eastern Jerusalem.

But Arafat removed him from the Fatah list, forcing him to run independently.

"Arafat doesn't care much. He is happy to see a lot of independents competing, because they represent only themselves," said political scientist Khalil Shikaki. "Even the Fatah candidates are running like independents. They only have the myth of Fatah behind them."

Najib Abu-Rakia, an Israeli Arab active with the Knesset's Meretz Party, was sharply critical of the treatment received by the former leaders of the intifada.

"What's happening now in the West Bank is a disgrace," he said. "What kind of a parliament are they electing?"

Israel is well aware that if the Palestinian Council does not give the people a sense of true representation, it will ultimately work against the very interests of the Palestinian autonomy — and of Israel as well.

But Israel has no choice. It must be a bystander as the Palestinian elections proceed.

The show must go on, and Arafat is running it. And the Israelis know that there is no one who can do it better. Israel's determination to see Arafat elected was reflected in its ability to complete — ahead of schedule — its redeployment from 400 West Bank cities and towns.

As the Israeli army left each town, Arafat arrived to deliver a speech about Palestinian independence and promised to make Jerusalem the capital of the Palestinian state.

But that highly sensitive issue, along with the fate of 144 Jewish settlements in the territories, remains a matter for final-status negotiations to begin after Palestinian elections this spring.