Even before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was removed from the stage by his latest stroke, the prospect that Palestinian legislative elections would be conducted on January 25 as scheduled seemed increasingly bleak. This had little to do with Israeli threats to block voting in East Jerusalem if the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) participates, or American and European threats to sever aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if Hamas is included in the next Cabinet. While the Palestinian political system’s ability to function is deeply influenced by Israel, by virtue of the occupation and by the PA’s political and economic dependence on foreign powers, the dynamics of Palestinian elections are primarily internal.
The coming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) are part of the broad reconfiguration of Palestinian politics necessitated by the death more than a year ago of Yasir Arafat. Because the legendary Palestinian leader over the years transformed this system into a reflection of his personality and tailored it to his methods of rule–meaning there was not much of a system and its operative principles were divide, co-opt and rule–Arafat’s successors, lacking his stature as well as his acumen, were compelled to introduce structural changes to consolidate their position. Taking stock of Palestinian realities, they opted to legitimize their leadership, both domestically and internationally, through a process of elections, institutionalization and power-sharing.
While attention has been focused on President Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to integrate Hamas into the PA, the most significant developments have been within the dominant yet increasingly fragmented Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), precisely because its hegemony over Palestinian institutions means their fate continues to rest in its hands. Furthermore, the cooperation of Hamas, so vital to Abbas’s attempts to achieve a cease-fire and resume negotiations with the United States and Israel, was never really in doubt; that of Fatah, without which power-sharing cannot succeed, was by contrast never certain.
The Islamists’ calculations are relatively straightforward. Having experienced a surge in popular support during the latest intifada, and with Israel’s unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip demonstrating their power as well as its limits, Hamas is keen to translate its success into institutional power. Recent municipal elections, in which the Islamists handily won control of most urban areas, including traditional Fatah bastions like Nablus, suggest that Hamas’s current electoral appeal extends well beyond those who share its ideology and agenda. With a reputation for clean hands, effective service delivery and organizational discipline, it is emerging as the alternative of choice to a PA discredited by corruption, chaos and a failure to realize its agenda.
While few expect Hamas to emerge victorious in elections, the prospect of its doing well enough to sit around the Cabinet table has opened a rift of sorts within the Islamist movement. To one side are those who continue to advocate a strategy of gradual integration irrespective of the voters’ verdict, meaning that in the next stage Hamas should operate as a parliamentary faction exercising effective veto power over a Fatah-dominated executive. To the other are those who maintain that Hamas’s role in the PA should reflect the election result, including, if it performs well enough, a commensurate role in the executive and, some suggest, the security forces as well. While the gradualists have thus far retained the upper hand, the euphoria of victory, should it come to that, has a way of affecting internal balances of power.