Hamas wins in Gaza
The election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian President on 9 January was greeted with rapture in the White House and Downing Street. Here was a fine example of democracy in action in the Arab world, just as they have been advocating. More important, the man they wanted elected was elected – and he was elected by a street, with 62% of the votes cast compared with just under 20% for his nearest challenger, the independent Mustafa Barghouti.
It would be unfair to dampen this rapture by pointing out that the previous incumbent, Yasser Arafat, was also the product of a democratic process – in January 1996 – and he won by an even bigger street, with 88% of the votes cast. His transformation into a non-person by Israel and the US was not because of his lack of democratic credentials but because he refused to do what they wanted. With Abbas they hope they have got someone who will. Hence the enthusiasm in the White House and Downing Street at his election.
Hamas boycotted the presidential election because of its opposition to the Oslo Agreement. That is why Abbas won by a street. But Hamas is currently contesting local government elections in the occupied territories, and Fatah is not having it all its own way.
A small item on an inside page of the Guardian on 29 January was headed Hamas wins Gaza Strip vote. It began:
“The Islamist party Hamas has won control of seven out of 10 councils in the Gaza Strip, dealing a crushing blow to the Fatah party of the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Voters rejected Fatah's corrupt image and endorsed Hamas for its opposition to Israel and for providing welfare, schools and nurseries to the impoverished residents of the territory. Hamas won 75 out of 118 seats, leaving Fatah with 39.”
These elections, which took place on 27 January, were the first local government elections ever held in Gaza. The turnout was said to be over 80% (see, for example, a report in Haaretz on 30 January). But, since the wrong party won, no celebration of this example of democracy in the Arab world emanated from the White House or Downing Street.
These local government elections were not the first in which Hamas participated and polled well: five weeks earlier on 23 December (before the election of Mahmoud Abbas), it had taken part in local government elections in the West Bank, also with considerable success. A report in Haaretz on the outcome was headed Hamas wins big in first local elections in W. Bank since '76.
This was the first time that Hamas had stood for election in the occupied territories. Of the 26 councils contested, Hamas won 7 and Fatah 12 with neither party having a majority in the other 7. Of the 306 seats contested, Fatah won 136 (44%) and Hamas 108 (36%) (see The process of local election in the PNA by Abdulnasser Makky). There was no rejoicing from the White House or Downing Street about these elections either, even though they were the first local government elections since the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994 – the Fatah leadership of the Authority didn’t hold any local government elections because they (and Israel and the US) feared the outcome that has now occurred.
These local government elections on 23 December and 27 January did not cover the whole of the West Bank or of Gaza. They are merely the first two stages of what is scheduled to be a five-stage process of local government elections to be completed over a period of a year. Hamas has clearly outpolled Fatah in Gaza, which was to be expected, but its performance in the West Bank must have been a shock to Fatah (and to the US).
It remains to be seen if Hamas will outperform Fatah overall in the local government elections, or in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, which are scheduled for July. If it does, it’s a fair bet that the White House will find some way of questioning the validity of the result – the wrong kind of democracy will have been in operation.
The turnout in the presidential election was widely reported to be about 70% (see, for example, Abbas wins landslide victory in the Guardian on 10 January), but this seems to be a gross exaggeration. It is a convenient exaggeration for the White House and Downing Street, who are keen to portray Mahmoud Abbas as a president with the wholehearted support of the Palestinian people, with opponents of the Oslo Agreement marginalised. A high abstention rate would indicate that this was not so.
In fact, it seems that, for various reasons, less than 50% of those eligible to vote actually did so (see Media grossly exaggerate Palestinian voter turnout by Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 10 January). The basic reason for the misrepresentation of the turnout is that, whereas about 70% of those registered to vote did vote, almost a third of eligible voters didn’t register, or were unable to register.
According to the Commission responsible for the electoral process, about 1,100,000 people were registered to vote in late November last year, and this was around two thirds of those eligible to vote. So, the total number of eligible voters in the occupied territories is, roughly, 1,600,000, whereas the number of votes cast was 775,146, which is less than 50% of the eligible voters.
Normally, it would be reasonable to define the turnout as the percentage of those registered to vote who actually vote. But, in this case, the Commission decided late on polling day to allow unregistered individuals to cast ballots using only their identity cards. According to Ali Abunimah:
“A Palestinian election official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that the changes came after heavy pressure from Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, which feared a low turnout could weaken Abbas.”
Be that as it may, if people who are not registered are allowed to vote, it doesn’t make sense to calculate the turnout as a percentage of those registered.
It was extraordinary for the Commission to make such a significant change in the electoral rules while voting was taking place. It didn’t make any difference to the election of Abbas, but, had a rival not favoured in the White House and Downing Street been elected, there would have been banner headlines on the front of our newspapers about it.
Just imagine the outcry if Robert Mugabe had changed the electoral rules on the day of an election in order to perpetuate himself in power.
Labour & Trade Union Review