An unusual calm has settled on the occupied territories with the start of the election campaign. Posters of all shapes and sizes have filled Palestinian streets. In addition to picturing the candidates, many feature figures who are unable to be present in election rallies.
The most obvious absentees pictured are the slain Hamas leaders Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, as well as the late Yasser Arafat. But others appearing on huge posters include a number of candidates who are behind bars, like Marwan Barghouti (Fatah), Hassan Yousef (Hamas) and Ahmad Saadat (PFLP, held in Jericho). One poster is a 2004 photo of Arafat holding a poster calling for the release of Barghouti.
While these posters have been plastered in many interesting areas, travelers on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road have seen them in particularly noteworthy spots. The faces of Third Party candidates such as former PA minister of finance Salam Fayad and former Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi are now gracing the separation wall. The high cement barrier has proven a godsend to campaigners searching for an easy backdrop.
As the traveler moves closer to the newly-built Kalandiya terminal, a few posters show up inside the terminal – some brave supporters of independent candidate Jamil Tarifi succeeded in getting three of his posters inside. And once out of the crowded terminal Palestinian travelers can’t avoid two huge billboards of Fatah candidate Kadoura Fares.
THE AIRWAVES are no less crowded. Palestine television has organized, along with the Dubai-based Al Arabiyeh, a nightly feature profiling each of the 11 lists. The Maan Network of local private radio stations has been contracted to broadcast election spots for most of the candidates. In the last week of the elections each of the 10 member stations will air a Hamas spot every 15 minutes and a Fatah spot every 30 minutes almost around the clock.
The cost of these spots is not so much – about $25 each. The Arabiyeh satellite network, on the other hand, charges nearly $5,000 per spot. While a few candidates or lists can afford many of these, international organizations have paid for general spots focusing on increasing voter participation.
Pollsters show that a high turnout, especially in urban areas, will favor national centrists candidates, while a low turnout will favor hard-line groups with a loyal core of supporters.
Speculation about the winners and losers is widespread. The possibility of the success of the Islamic movement has caused panic in some circles and little concern in others. Talk about social policies and an Islamic state are discounted as most agree that these are premature issues.
THE ONE issue of importance is how the results will affect negotiations. But since negotiations have always been conducted between Israel and the PLO, elections for the legislative council are not expected to directly affect the prospects for diplomatic talks. The economic future of the Palestinian territories, particularly whether the flow of foreign assistance could be jeopardized, is seen as a much more central issue for this election.
Here too, opinions vary. Some say that Western threats are empty. Others feel that the majority of Western support can go directly to the Palestinians through various instruments. For its part, Hamas leaders are trying to allay such concerns by saying that they have not decided about joining the government even if they do well in the elections.
The beginning of the election season has had a number of side-effects. The spate of kidnappings in Gaza has suddenly come to a stop as Fatah and its supporters seem to have belatedly decided to put aside internal difference in order to focus on the threat of losing power. One visiting US official speculated to me that Fatah’s numbers could not get any worse. His idea is that if you simply took the number of all those on the payroll or benefiting from Fatah you would get the numbers that polls are giving them.
Any attempt by Fatah to improve its policies could produce better results for them. Fatah seems to have understood this, and their message is a mix of apologizing for past mistakes and a request to the public to give them another chance.
In most cases like the one we are seeing, where anti-incumbent feelings run so strong, the corrupt rulers are easily swept out of power to give the opposition a chance to do better. Yet with Palestinians facing an existential issue as grave as negotiating for the permanent status of Palestine, many are privately hoping that the ruling party is taught a lesson at the polls without losing all power. Such a scenario plays into the hands of independent and left-wing groups, which look like they will be the kingmakers in the upcoming years.
* Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist and the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.