A Very Slippery "Landslide" for Mahmoud Abbas
by Peter Lagerquist
Gaza Killings Ends Abbas' Election Honeymoon
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 disguized 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
U.S.-friendly Arab governments like Egypt and tacitly smiled upon by the
chancelleries of the European Union.
Prior to the elections, some already referred darkly to Mahmoud Abbas as the "Palestinian Karzai" -- in other words, America's stooge. Few have forgotten that the last time a U.S. president used such glowing language to bless a Palestinian election was upon Arafat's victory in 1996
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
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 U.S. 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"
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
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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
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 U.S. 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
LONESOME PLAYING FIELD
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-ˆ-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 U.S. 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 florished 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"
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 U.S. 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
"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
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 U.S. 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!"
to his election, many Western commentators expected that Abu Mazen
would be amenable to working within U.S.-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 U.S. 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
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 promized 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
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.
Peter Lagerquist is a freelance journalist based in Israel and the West
Reprinted by special permission of the
Middle East Reasearch and Information Project (MERIP)
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January 19, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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