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Palestinian voters skeptical about value of elections

Fatah faces challengers in the West Bank, but some residents express doubt that the party's dominance can be broken and that anything will improve.

October 10, 2012|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Campaign posters dot the West Bank city of Nablus for municipal elections scheduled for Oct. 20.
Campaign posters dot the West Bank city of Nablus for municipal elections… (Alaa Badarneh / European…)

HEBRON, West Bank — Stumping for votes in the first Palestinian election since 2006, Hebron City Council aspirant Maysoun Qawasmi strides into a plastics factory to promote the West Bank's first all-female political party.

The 43-year-old candidate begins wooing executives, listening to workers' concerns and promising reform. She predicts that her list of candidates will shake up the conservative Islamist-leaning city, where women rarely take center stage.

"We are seeing the same people running, and they aren't offering anything new," says the journalist, who comes from a well-connected family. "Voters are looking for independent voices. This is my chance."

Yet despite Qawasmi's tireless campaigning and positive international press coverage, many Palestinian voters are expressing skepticism about whether the Oct. 20 municipal elections will result in improvements to their day-to-day lives, ease the Israeli occupation or usher in fresh political leadership to break the dominance of the mainstream Fatah Party in the West Bank.

As Qawasmi charmed a group of factory workers nearby, mailroom worker Mohamed Malik, 19, said he would probably cast his first-ever vote for her slate because his cousin is one of the 11 women on the list. But he doubts she will win and expects little change.

"Fatah will win, of course," he said. "They always win. And nothing ever changes."

Most pollsters predict that small alternative parties like Qawasmi's "By Participating, We Can" won't make much headway, either in Hebron or elsewhere in the West Bank.

Fatah's toughest competition, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, is boycotting the West Bank polls, accusing Fatah of harassing Hamas members in the West Bank and refusing to guarantee an even playing field.

So though they are symbolically important, the local elections won't shed much light on the long-running rivalry between Hamas and Fatah.

In the last municipal elections in 2004-05, Hamas surprised many by winning in several major West Bank cities, an early sign of the victory it would score a year later in parliamentary elections.

After that victory, Fatah and Hamas struggled to build a unity government, but ultimately clashed in a brief armed struggle, leaving Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah ruling the West Bank. Each set up its own government, and reconciliation attempts have faltered.

Without Hamas running, Fatah is almost certain to win in most cities, including those Hamas won last time, such as Nablus, Al Bireh and Tulkarm. Competition from smaller established parties, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is expected to be weak.

The West Bank has more than 350 districts, but 181 will not hold elections because only one party is competing, said Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Palestinian election commission. In an additional 78 localities, elections have been postponed until November because there are not enough candidates to fill the open seats.

Pollsters say that means the only real competition will be between Fatah factions.

In several cities such as Jenin and Nablus, Fatah is offering its official slate, which was approved by the central committee. But more than one city has seen a group of disgruntled or reform-minded Fatah members split with the party to offer its own list of candidates.

"We will not really learn a lot of about the size and popularity of Hamas and Fatah from these elections," said Nader Said-Foqahaa, president of Arab World for Research & Development, a Ramallah pollster. "But it could be a referendum on the different factions within Fatah and on the amount of support for the central leadership in Fatah. The quasi-Fatah lists show that the old ways of Fatah politicians may not be working for its supporters."

According to a recent poll by his group, 72% of Palestinians said they planned to vote Oct. 20, though nearly half of Hamas supporters said they would not. Top issues include the economy, jobs and healthcare services, the poll found.

Some analysts predict that some Hamas voters may go to the polls despite the boycott, but only to vote against Fatah's official list.

Hamas officials say the West Bank elections are illegitimate and should be held only after reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, so Hamas members can safely vote and elections can take place in the Gaza Strip as well.

Fatah officials accuse Hamas of halting voter registration drives in Gaza and say they can no longer justify postponing local elections.

In Hebron, the local election will be the first since the mid-1970s because the city was deemed too unstable in 2005 to take part in the last round of voting.

Qawasmi said it's time to let women have a shot at leadership and vowed to run for mayor if her party wins seats on the 15-member Hebron council, on which women are guaranteed at least three seats under a quota system.

"But we don't want to be just a number or a quota," the candidate told a roomful of factory workers during her visit this week. "Three out of 15! Is that enough?"

Not everyone shared her sense of injustice. Factory owner Mazen Zghier answered with a laugh, and said, "Yes. It's enough!"

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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