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Palestinian leader issues voting decree

New rules will make it harder for his Hamas rivals to win elections.

September 03, 2007|Maher Abukhater and Richard Boudreaux | Special to The Times

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday decreed new election rules intended to make it harder for his faction's Hamas rivals to win the presidency or keep their majority in parliament.

But the move only widened a rift between Abbas' West Bank administration and Hamas forces running the Gaza Strip, complicating any future effort to reunite the Palestinian territories as a single electoral entity.

Hamas called the decree illegal and accused Abbas of abetting U.S. and Israeli aims to sideline the militant Islamic movement.

In elections under the previous rules, Hamas unseated Abbas' long-governing Fatah faction in January 2006 to win control of parliament. The two groups shared power in a government that served Gaza and the West Bank until Hamas gunmen seized Gaza nearly three months ago, driving out Fatah's security forces.

At that point, Abbas fired the Hamas-led government, installed one loyal to him and began issuing decrees, their impact limited to the West Bank. Fatah boycotts have kept parliament from achieving a quorum to meet.

Israel and Western countries have embraced Abbas' government. The Palestinian Authority leader has held a series of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the goal of drafting the framework for a future peace accord in advance of a U.S.-sponsored conference this fall.

Meanwhile, Abbas has said he will call early elections but has set no dates. His term ends in 2009, parliament's in 2010.

In last year's parliamentary elections, voters chose half the lawmakers from nationwide lists offered by political parties. The other lawmakers were elected in local district races.

Hamas outpolled Fatah by a margin of about 2 to 1 in the district races but won only narrowly in the nationwide vote.

According to Sunday's decree, the entire parliament will be elected from national lists; district races will be eliminated.

The decree also calls for a runoff in presidential elections if no candidate receives an absolute majority of first-round votes. The change would make it more difficult for Hamas, which fell short of a majority in last year's election, to capitalize on divisions among secular parties.

In addition, the decree requires all presidential and parliamentary candidates to recognize the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization as the "sole, legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people and to accept previous accords between the PLO and Israel.

Hamas has no representation in the PLO, which was led by Fatah founder Yasser Arafat until his death in 2004, and has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist.

Abbas summoned reporters to his office to announce the decree, calling it an amendment to the Palestinian Authority's election law. He did not spell out reasons for the changes, but political leaders said the intent was clear.

"The purpose is to give more power to PLO-member parties at the expense of Hamas," said Hassan Khreisheh, a politically independent deputy speaker of parliament who nonetheless doubted that Hamas' electoral prospects would be significantly weakened.

In any case, Hamas is unlikely to agree to elections regulated by the decree. A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, said that only parliament has authority to change the election law.

"Hamas objects to this policy of monopolizing decision-making," he said.

Some non-Hamas legal experts, including the chief authors of the interim Palestinian Authority constitution, have disputed the president's power to amend laws by decree. Abbas says he has such authority because parliament is no longer functioning.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Abukhater reported from Ramallah and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem.

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