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.
If anything, Hamas’s fear at this point is that it may do too well, and consequently will be forced to exchange the benefits of opposition for the burdens of responsibility and prematurely confront strategic issues like relations with Israel and the demobilization of its armed wing. The only certainty is that Hamas would not have embarked so decisively on the path of political integration if it was unprepared to accept–in substance if not as a matter of official policy–a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Fatah, by contrast, the challenges are primarily internal. Even if the movement were to make a clean sweep of the elections, the Fatah Central Committee (FCC), which controls the levers of power within the Palestinian political system, would be the biggest loser; empowered and emboldened by a mandate from the people, the more ambitious members of Fatah’s parliamentary faction, for whom the movement’s imprisoned West Bank secretary general, Marwan Barghouti, has emerged as a focal point, will effectively create a situation of dual power within the movement. They will seek not only a transformation of the PA and its modus operandi–if need be in alliance with Hamas and independents–but, more important, they will also seek to convene the Fatah General Congress (FGC). The latter institution, which pursuant to the Fatah constitution must meet every five years to formulate organizational strategy and elect the FCC, has not met since 1989. Given the unprecedented levels of discontent with the current FCC, few if any of its members are expected to survive the next FGC session.
This is, in significant part, precisely Abbas’s strategy: to have the electorate, Fatah rebels and Islamists remove his FCC rivals from power so he will not have to do the dirty work himself. Yet his passivity since assuming office has cost him dearly and threatens to overwhelm him as well as his strategy. Indeed, the growing chaos in the occupied territories, and particularly the Gaza Strip, reflects his strategic failure to confront competing Fatah power centers before elections and has produced the widespread conviction that Abbas is unable to implement the agenda he claims to uphold.
That the chaos increased markedly in November and December, preventing Fatah from conducting primaries, and has since surged to levels that may force a further postponement of PLC elections is not coincidental. Many detect the hidden hand of the FCC, acting in concert with militias claiming to represent the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades (affiliated with Fatah) to block elections that will diminish their power relative to others in Fatah, and that of Fatah relative to Hamas. The combination of sclerotic revolutionaries and young militants joining forces to keep middle-aged activists on the margins–itself a vast oversimplification–also puts paid to the idea that this is a generational struggle between an old and young guard. The present reality is one of systematic fragmentation, in which multiple power centers engaged in a constantly shifting pattern of opportunistic alliances and petty rivalries have taken Fatah to the brink of disintegration. For its part, Hamas has warned that if elections are further postponed it will fill the streets with mass demonstrations to impose democratization from below. Should it fail, it is likely to abort the cease-fire it has observed to a greater extent than others (including both Israel and Fatah).
In the larger scheme of things, the destruction of the Palestinian national movement has been one of Ariel Sharon’s consistent strategic priorities since the early 1970s; indeed, no explanation of its current seeming implosion is complete without an account of his contribution. Yet whether Palestinians will be compelled to inherit the legacy of Sharon, reduced to fragmented communities behind concrete barriers and occupied by remote control, or eventually compel Israel to accept genuine self-determination for the Palestinian people will ultimately be determined by the Palestinians’ success or failure at reconstituting their national movement as an effective and purposeful political force. The answer to this critical question is likely to be provided this year, and Palestinian elections–or not–form a central component of this dynamic.