A Very Slippery “Landslide” for Mahmoud Abbas by Peter Lagerquist
(Peter Lagerquist is a freelance journalist based in Israel and the West Bank.)
A chorus of international approval greeted Mahmoud Abbas’ victory in the Palestinian Authority presidential election. January 9 was “a historic day for the Palestinian people and for the people of the Middle East,” declared President George W. Bush, as the final count gave the Fatah party candidate some 62 percent of the vote — three times the tally of his nearest challenger, human rights campaigner Mustafa Barghouthi. Prior to the election, the Bush administration and the government of Ariel Sharon had scarcely disguised their wishes that Abbas would be chosen as successor to the late Yasser Arafat. Since Arafat’s mysterious death, pundits and diplomats alike have heaped plaudits on his erstwhile lieutenant, most importantly describing him as a “moderate” for his long-standing calls to end armed Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. Indeed, the promise of some movement — any movement — in the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process produced a rare international consensus on the Middle East. The campaigning Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was publicly endorsed by US-friendly Arab governments like Egypt and tacitly smiled upon by the chancelleries of the European Union.
Media outlets across the political spectrum also rushed to invest the election with significance. “Palestinian landslide for Abbas,” declared CBS News; “Abbas wins his mandate,” echoed the British Daily Telegraph. For once, the left-wing Guardian fell in with its Tory competitor. “Mr. Abbas owes his victory to the silent majority of Palestinians who yearn for normal lives in a state of their own. Israel must listen to what they want,” declared its day-after leader. It was just the kind of message that Abbas’ campaign manager Muhammad Shtayeh had hoped to implant. “This is the choice of the people and this means that Abu Mazen has the mandate to implement his program,” he affirmed confidently as the polls closed.
Both the Guardian and Shtayeh are mistaken, however. The silent majority in the West Bank and Gaza remained silent on January 9. If their silence was overwhelmed by media coverage largely indifferent to the conduct and the actual count of the vote, it is because both the electoral exercise and its international endorsers had a limited interest in what the majority really wants.
The first public admission came on January 15, with the resignation of 46 members of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee in protest at widespread voting irregularities and intimidation by Palestinian Authority officials. If the resignations gave some idea of how jerry-built was Abbas’ mandate, the military wing of his own Fatah party demonstrated how scant is the authority that it bestows. Defying Abbas’ calls for a ceasefire despite escalating Israeli army killings of both Palestinian civilians and militants across the Occupied Territories prior to the elections, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades joined with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in an attack on Gaza’s Karni border terminal on January 13, killing six Israelis. On the day that Abbas was to be sworn into office, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded by cutting all ties with the Palestinian Authority and loosened what reins had bound the army in Gaza. Secretary of State Colin Powell weighed in by sternly admonishing Abbas to crack down on the militants. It was a pointed reminder of the constituency to whom the US and Israel believe the Palestinian president should answer — and confirmation of the misgivings that had kept most Palestinians from the previous week’s polls.
SIFTING THROUGH THE “LANDSLIDE”
In the run-up to January 9, commentators harped nervously on the question of Abbas’ “mandate.” After popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned by Israel since April 2002 on charges of “terrorism,” finally withdrew his candidacy in December 2004, opinion polls consistently cast Abbas as a secure frontrunner. Yet they also showed that on the eve of the elections, as many as 80 percent of some 1.8 million eligible voters in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip remained either undecided or indifferent to the entire exercise. Many observers therefore regarded with skepticism reports of a 75 percent turnout that circulated immediately after polls closed. Yet the following morning, the BBC and CNN reported a participation rate of 66 percent, and most of the media followed suit. It is unclear how this number was derived, but it is certainly overly optimistic. According to data from the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, 775,146 ballots were cast on January 9, meaning that the real proportion of eligible voters who voted was 46 percent.
That lower turnout figure means that Mahmoud Abbas — with 62 percent of the votes actually cast — won over about 28 percent of eligible Palestinian voters. By comparison, according to figures from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, turnout was 75 percent at the 1996 elections that appointed the first Palestinian Legislative Council and 78 percent at the poll that anointed Yasser Arafat president of the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA). The instant myth of an Abbas “landslide” took root, however, and the wishful thinking was not confined to the press.
Hailing Abbas’ victory by a “large-size vote,” Bush described the election as “further proof” that people in the Middle East want democracy. Washington is marketing the January 9 event as a watershed moment in the regional reform agenda that it has implemented in Afghanistan and is still hoping to carry through in Iraq. To most Palestinians, however, such comparisons are decidedly unwelcome. Prior to the elections, some already referred darkly to Abu Mazen as the “Palestinian Karzai” — in other words, America’s stooge. Few have forgotten that the last time a US president used such glowing language to bless a Palestinian election was upon Arafat’s victory in 1996. Bush’s sense of irony may be famously threadbare, but Palestinians keenly appreciate that he spent the better part of his first term marginalizing the last democratically elected Palestinian leader. What use was it to elect a president, many asked, when the US and Israel could declare him “irrelevant” at will? Most therefore saw little cause to celebrate the ritual enactment of another Middle Eastern election with foregone conclusions.
ON THE ROAD TO INDIFFERENCE
The extent of this indifference was amply evidenced in Ramallah area polling stations on election day, for those who cared to see it. In Qalandia refugee camp — traditionally a Fatah stronghold — the turnout was strongest in the morning, as a steady trickle of men and women filed through the camp’s school and nearby youth center. To boost turnout, the Central Elections Commission (CEC) had decided on the eve of the polls to allow voting on the basis of civil registration, allowing even those who had not registered ahead of the election to cast their polls at special civil voting offices in or near their communities. Civil registries were to be kept at these offices, though there were numerous complaints about their maintenance. In one Ramallah-area office, Palestinian election observers interviewed for this article claimed that as many as 20 percent of voters were turned away because their names were not on the registry. Other complaints about last-minute changes to the elections procedures emerged later in the evening. By the end, a local community leader estimated that perhaps half the camp’s eligible voters cast their ballots. However, this turnout proved a rare exception in the vicinity.
At a polling station in the nearby al-Bireh municipality, there were only a handful of voters — a picture mirrored along the road leading out from Ramallah, through Beitunia and the southwestern villages of the Ramallah governorate. Most of these polling stations fall within what the Oslo accords designated as “Area C,” meaning that the Israeli army enjoys full security and administrative control. The PA does not pretend to have much to do with the daily lives of the inhabitants. The poor quality of local roads, and the fact that most of the rural houses are three- or four-story structures, testifies to the restrictive nature of Israel’s administrative regime. Largely prevented from breaking ground for construction, Palestinians here build upward. Abu Ahmad (real name withheld), a patriarch in the village of Beit Sira with a glint in his eye, sat on his roof with a view of Israel’s “security barrier” and cheerfully decried the impotence of Palestinian leaderships past and future. “They are all shit: Abu Mazen, Barghouthi, all the Arab leaders.” “Besides, they [the Israelis, the US and the international community] have already chosen for us!” added his wife.
Not surprisingly, there was modest traffic in Beit Sira’s election office and in nearby village centers. Even self-avowed Abu Mazen supporters, waiting outside one village polling station, suggested that he was simply their default choice in his capacity as the Fatah candidate. In what proved to be a metaphor for the day’s proceedings, party hands and local Palestinian observers often representing the same parties — some 20,000 observers were registered for the election — often seemed to outnumber the voters themselves. Leaving Beit Sira along the road leading back to Ramallah, the afternoon quiet was interrupted with the sound of forced enthusiasm. Blaring patriotic music, two pickup trucks rounded a bend, covered in posters and flags and stacked high with young men, dangling out the windows, exhorting residents on loudspeakers. The Fatah get-out-the-vote machine passed by quickly. In a minute, the road was again empty, the countryside silent.
LONESOME PLAYING FIELD
In one way, this silence may be understood as resulting from the international parameters that continue to proscribe the political positions the Palestinian Authority can adopt. It is also a result of how the main protagonists within the Palestinian political arena have positioned themselves vis-à-vis these parameters. Palestinians supporting the Islamic resistance movement Hamas — estimated to command 20-30 percent of popular opinion in the West Bank and Gaza — were unlikely to turn out after the party opted to boycott the election on the grounds that this would bestow recognition on the Oslo accords, to which Hamas remains opposed. Meanwhile, the strong showing of Marwan Barghouti in earlier opinion polls highlighted that a sizable portion of Abbas’ own Fatah constituency was less than enamored with his candidacy, notwithstanding his endorsement both by the party’s senior leadership and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Though he had moderated his tone before the election, primarily by welcoming Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, Barghouti was widely seen as less bound than Abbas by Israeli and US dictates. Further, he continued to insist on the Palestinians’ right to engage in armed resistance. That he might thereby have trumped Abbas, according to some surveys, was all the more poignant for the fact that he would have done so from an Israeli prison cell.
This left the National Initiative of Mustafa Barghouthi (a distant relation of Marwan) as the only remotely weighty alternative. Ahead of the elections, the Initiative had been endorsed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, following talks in Damascus between Barghouthi and PFLP leader George Habash. Yet the PFLP, a small Marxist faction, enjoys very modest support in the Occupied Territories, largely limited to the West Bank. Meanwhile, as a loose gathering of independent and left-of-center intellectuals and politicians, the Initiative had no traditional party allegiances to draw on. Like Barghouthi, many of its leading lights had retreated from national politics after 1995, to strike out in the Western-funded NGO industry that flourished in the Occupied Territories during the heyday of the Oslo “peace process.” The Initiative could associate itself with real efforts to improve the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians, in the form of ambulance services, mobile clinics and health centers supported by the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees and Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute Investment Program, two NGOs started by Barghouthi. But when added to the fact that few of its personalities had dirtied themselves in the resistance trenches of the current intifada, the Initiative’s perceived close links to Western money, and by implication also Western interest, exposed it to nationalist suspicions similar to those dogging Abbas.
To boot, Barghouthi ran on a platform largely similar to Abu Mazen’s, calling for an end to armed resistance and reform of the PA. Though these promises resonate with the Palestinian street, they carry a double edge because the street knows they sound even better to the international community. Barghouthi’s personal record of organizing civil protest campaigns, particularly against the wall Israel is building in the West Bank, suggested that by an end to armed resistance he did not mean an end to resistance as such. Not having been part of the PA’s notoriously venal inner circle, he also had stronger reform credentials and was better protected from the perception that “reform” meant mainly PA security cooperation with Israel. As such, the election allowed Barghouthi and many other leftists to reinsert themselves into national politics. But with a limited following and a limited agenda, their role was unlikely to extend beyond infusing the election with just enough drama to make them credible.
PADDING THE “MANDATE”
Ahead of the election, it was widely speculated that Israel’s ubiquitous military presence in the Occupied Territories would prove the biggest obstacle to conducting a “free and fair” ballot. To allay such concerns, hundreds of multinational observers were deployed on election day, including a 80-strong contingent from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute led by the eminence grise of international election monitoring, former President Jimmy Carter. To their relief, Israeli checkpoints did significantly ease access to polling places across the Occupied Territories. The notable exception was occupied East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian CEC had been prohibited from operating by the Israeli government. As a small concession, Israel allowed instead for 5,300 local Palestinian residents, out of an estimated 120,000 eligible voters, to register with the CEC, and then cast their ballots in Israel’s East Jerusalem post offices. With the main post office located next to a police station, and local residents perpetually fearful of having their Jerusalem ID cards challenged or revoked by the authorities, final attendance was minuscule. Some Jerusalem residents did vote in centers set up outside the city boundaries in Qalandia and Abu Dis. Largely, however, the West Bank’s historical, commercial and cultural center was cut out of the franchise. While it might be odd to claim that “English elections were free and fair, except for in metropolitan London,” such was the equivalent conclusion of the US observer team and most international media outlets.
Jerusalem’s de facto exclusion was not the only “irregularity” to which international observers turned a benign eye. On the day of the election, Palestinian observers were already complaining that by allowing people to vote both on the basis of voter and civil registries, the CEC had opened a window for double voting — a concern later echoed to al-Jazeera by Maud Jose, coordinator for the multinational monitoring committees. At one civil registration polling station, an observer affiliated with Barghouthi’s Initiative claimed that members of the Palestinian police and security services had refused to be marked with ink after casting their vote. “Then they go back and vote in the Muqata [the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah].” Reports of other irregularities were coming in from the rest of West Bank. “In many districts people were able to wash off the ink and then go back,” says a well-informed source close to the elections. Despite such gaming, however, turnout remained meager. By 3 pm, participation stood at 22 percent, noted the source. More surprisingly, Barghouthi and Abbas were reportedly running uncomfortably close. Senior Fatah officials started worrying and word spread that a meeting had been called, during which one of Abbas’ public relations consultants hit upon the idea of extending voting hours.
“At about 4, 4:30, they came to the front of the building and started shooting in the air,” says one source. “There were soldiers and people with Abu Mazen and they wanted to push back the vote. Then there was a meeting with Hanna Nasser, the president of the CEC and two, three minutes later they came out.” Nasser secured the Commission’s consent to extend polling by two hours. “I was personally threatened and pressured,” said senior commission member Ammar Dwaik, who along with Baha al-Bakri led the CEC mass resignations five days later. In a public statement, al-Bakri noted that voting hours are typically extended only when there are long lines at the polling stations and affirmed that “[t]his was not the case on election day. These procedures had two goals: first, to increase the turnout, and second, to increase the percentage of Fatah voters.” Whereas turnout was still estimated to hover around an anemic 35 percent as the original 7 pm polling deadline neared, it rose by 10 percent over the next two to three hours. “Full of soldiers and police, in and out of uniform,” said the typical late evening report from Ramallah polling stations. “ A late surge in voting — forcing an extension of voting hours — means it may be some time before official figures are known,” concluded the BBC blissfully after the polls finally closed.
Whereas even Dwaik and Bakri shied from alleging that the “late surge” threw the outcome into question, it did cast further doubt on the substance of Abbas’ mandate. Maud Jose’s statement two days after the election sounded an early but ultimately lonely note of concern. A January 10 press release from the US observer mission allowed that “certain last-minute changes by the Central Election Commission (CEC) to conditions and hours for voting were implemented in ways that caused confusion,” but applauded the election overall. Jimmy Carter, though noting that Palestinians “live under Israeli military and political domination,” wholeheartedly endorsed the election as “completely free and fair, honest, open and, thankfully, without violence of any kind, so far as I know, that was important.” Mustafa Barghouthi’s Initiative was the chief victim of the irregularities, and late on election night his campaign headquarters issued a press release alleging that “Massive Violations of Elections Protocol Call Legitimacy of These Elections Into Serious Question.” The allegation got little coverage in the media, and by the next day Barghouthi had opted to chime in with the international chorus and salvage the Initiative’s gains. “The silent majority is no longer silent,” he proclaimed, adding wishfully: “We are now the second biggest party, bigger than Hamas!”
Prior to his election, many Western commentators expected that Abu Mazen would be amenable to working within US-Israeli parameters for managing the conflict. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s impending Middle East peace conference confirms that these parameters primarily require an end to any form of armed Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority’s recommitment to maintaining quiet in those Palestinian enclaves from which Sharon is planning to redeploy Israeli soldiers and settlers. Some hoped that security cooperation would be accompanied by a reinvigoration of formal Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a final settlement, via Bush’s tattered “road map.”
By all indications, Abbas himself had more realistic expectations. While campaigning, he made pointedly conciliatory promises to “protect” Palestinian militant groups if they were to observe a ceasefire. Their January 13 attack on Israel’s border terminal in Gaza suggested that such talk carries little weight, particularly in the face of ongoing Israeli military operations. Yet even in his attempts to coopt rather than crush the scattered Palestinian resistance, Abbas faces an uphill battle. His shallow popular endorsement on January 9 was first and foremost a vote for Fatah, not for him, and not necessarily for an end to armed resistance, as noted even by dovish Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. Abbas has already been reminded that Sharon’s expectations are much blunter.
Over before it began, Abbas’ honeymoon was always likely to be short. Speaking in December 2004 at the annual Herzliya conference, Sharon warned that he would put the new Palestinian president’s performance to a tough test. “In this part of the world this means actions, not words, and results, not effort,” he intoned ominously. If Sharon is to be judged by his own standards, Abbas will find it difficult to convince either the Palestinian public or militants that there is much to talk about with Israel. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank has proceeded apace over the last year, impeded neither by the US presidential election nor by Arafat’s death. Already in October 2004, Sharon’s senior political advisor Dov Weisglass had famously dispelled still prevailing illusions about the Gaza disengagement plan: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem…. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Should Abbas fail to sell this future to Palestinians, it is more than likely that he will be dismissed, like his predecessor, as the man who failed, whether for lack of will or ability, to seize the opportunity generously dangled in front of him.
WAITING FOR THE OTHER VOTE
In the meantime, Abbas’ main task will be to downsize Palestinian expectations and attempt to secure the modest relief that many hunger for. It was telling that one of the strongest and most common arguments in his favor was that he was likely to bring “quiet and some sort of easing of life,” as one Ramallah businessman put it. The apparent backing of the international community, Israel and the United States for Abbas boosted the perception that he would be able to secure greater donor assistance and easier access to the Israeli market. In a population worn down by four fruitless and costly years of the intifada, these aspirations are not limited to the middle class.
The January 9 election therefore highlighted the shrinking parameters within which Palestinian national aspirations are now debated, even among Palestinians. Seeking to strengthen his nationalist credentials on the eve of the election, Abbas promised that he would not cross “red lines” in any negotiations with Israel. To wit, he vowed he would insist on Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. In making this pledge, Abbas evoked the example of Yasser Arafat, though it is known through the EU’s publication of the Taba protocols that the late Palestinian leader was ready to stretch those red lines considerably, particularly as regards the right of return. That Abbas has articulated no strategy for securing those national objectives may therefore be secondary to the fact that his posturing offered no opportunity for debate on those objectives — including the question of whether a “two-state solution” as packaged by the present Israeli government is even desirable from a Palestinian perspective.
This impasse illustrates the limitations of the Palestinian Authority as a vehicle for Palestinian national debate and action — limitations that Hamas has in its own way aptly gauged. The institution continues to operate largely at the sufferance of Israel and the international donor community. Disbanding the PA as a security apparatus and relocating Palestinian political decision-making in a broader institution — like the PLO — has been a matter of fringe debate for some time in the West Bank and Gaza. That decision, if taken, would have the added benefit of reinserting the Palestinian refugee diaspora — even more marginalized by the election than East Jerusalem residents — in debates that will decide their future. But the PA’s dissolution is now less likely than ever, with Fatah as well part of the leftist opposition now invested in its dubious electoral mandate.
It remains for the May Palestinian Legislative Council elections, in which Hamas has opted to participate, to provide a better picture of the formal political landscape that will take shape after Arafat’s death. But it is already clear that any new departures in the strategies guiding Palestinian politics will have to be formulated within the political parties. As the election showed, Fatah remains the main political party for the time being. One of the conditions upon which Marwan Barghouti was reported to have abandoned his candidacy was that the party would finally agree to hold its first elections in over ten years. Such a vote, most assume, would lead to the ouster of the old guard that oversaw Abu Mazen’s ascent to the top, and who in so doing skirted the party caucus that Barghouti and many others had called for. The first question is therefore whether the Fatah elections will be held at all. If not, Hamas is waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will keep waiting for an election that might make a decisive difference in their lives: Israel’s.
For a detailed argument about the turnout, see Ali Abunimah, “Media Grossly Exaggerate Palestinian Voter Turnout,” Electronic Intifada, January 10, 2005. electronicintifada.net/v2/article3508.shtml
For background on the strategy behind the disengagement plan, see Mouin Rabbani, “Gaza’s Wars of Perception,” Middle East Report Online, October 14, 2004. www.merip.org/mero/mero101404.html
Middle East Report Online is a free service of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).