Democracy under occupation – a contradiction in terms

The outcome of the Palestinian presidential election on 10 January was never in much doubt; the winner, Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was the favoured candidate of imperialism and the Zionists. The only unknown was the turnout, how many of the poor and oppressed would boycott the election? Could Abbas, after the election, declare with any credibility that he had a real mandate from the people?

The final result saw Abbas gain 483,039 votes, 62.3% of the turnout. His nearest challenger Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), but running as an independent, gained 153,516 votes, 19.8% of votes cast. Of the other candidates, the representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine gained 27,118 votes (3.5%) and the Palestinian People’s Party, the former Palestinian Communist Party, gained 20,774 votes (2.68%). Three independent Islamic candidates won a further 36,457 votes between them – 4.71% of the total vote.

This seems to be a resounding victory for Abbas, but figures from the Palestinian Central Elections Commission (CEC) show the real state of affairs. Out of a total of approximately 1.8 million eligible voters, the turnout was only 46%. The vote for Abbas totalled just over 28% of all eligible voters – not, then, a resounding mandate to push through the agenda of imperialism. This is in complete contrast to the last election for President in 1996, when on a 75% voter turnout Yasser Arafat won 78% of the vote.

It is clear that the call to boycott the election by Hamas and Islamic Jihad had a significant effect.

The main candidates
Mahmoud Abbas was the favoured candidate of imperialism. One of the main planks of his election campaign was his opposition to the armed resistance. This is consistent with his political history. In his brief tenure as Palestinian Prime Minister in 2003 he had labelled the armed resistance as ‘terrorism’. Abbas has been in the political leadership of the PLO for many years; he was a central figure in the negotiations that led up to the Oslo Agreement in 1993. In 1995 he was involved in the infamous Beilin-Abu Mazen Understanding which came out of discussions between the PLO and Zionists associated with the Labour Party. The Understanding allowed Israel to maintain a permanent military force in the Jordan valley, and agreed to rename Abu Dis, a village outside Jerusalem, as Al Quds to get round the Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

On the question of Palestinian refugees and the right of return, the Understanding said: ‘Whereas the Palestinian side considers that the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is enshrined in international law and natural justice, it recognises that the prerequisites of the new era of peace and coexistence, as well as the realities that have been created on the ground since 1948, have rendered the implementation of this right impracticable’. In other words, the right of return no longer applied.

Mustafa Barghouti was the main opposition candidate. He is the leader of the PNI, which he set up in 2002 alongside Edward Said. He is influential in the prominent Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) Palestine Monitor. One of the main planks to his campaign was opposition to corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Barghouti is one of the leading figures in the NGOs movement centred in the West Bank. The majority of these were funded by western capital and were set up in the period following the Oslo Accords when large numbers of well-educated, middle class Palestinian refugees returned, believing that the ‘peace process’ would lead to a viable Palestinian state.

Barghouti was endorsed as a candidate by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on the basis of his support for the four points of their Democratic Programme. However Barghouti and the PNI are politically opposed to the armed resistance, what they term the ‘militarisation of the Intifada’. They have been politically linked with the ISM and pacifist campaigners from the USA and Europe who are also opposed to the Intifada. Barghouti represents the middle class who returned after Oslo who have been excluded from positions of power by the old PLO elite running the PA.

Running of the election
Israel did not stop its repression and killing in the period leading up to the election. On 4 January, only five days before the election, the Israeli army killed seven children in Gaza, blown to smithereens by an Israeli tank shell. A few days before the election a 17-year-old election worker was shot dead by an Israeli sniper in Gaza as she put up election posters. The day before the election the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz carried an article headlined ‘Quietly carrying on building’ reporting how settlements are expanding across the West Bank. According to the article Israel is drawing up plans to expand 120 settlements with the agreement of incoming US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

It was in this context that Israel agreed to a token withdrawal of some checkpoints and roadblocks in the 72 hours before the election to allow free movement of candidates and voters. However, this did not extend to Rafah, the main border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians have been prevented for over a month from re-entering Gaza and were excluded from the election process.

There were approximately 1,000 international and 22,000 local observers to monitor the legitimacy of the election. This did not prevent the massive obstruction of voters in East Jerusalem. Out of an estimated Palestinian population of between 200,000-300,000 only 5,365 were registered to vote at the city’s five polling stations! Of these stations, one didn’t open at all, and three others opened four hours late at 11am instead of 7am. As Al Ahram Weekly reported, these polling stations were completely controlled by Israel: ‘On Israeli demand voting took place in Israeli-owned and run post offices. Israeli-employed post office workers were charged with the task of verifying the identities of potential voters. Ballots were cast in Israeli-provided boxes, which were then taken to be counted by Israeli-employed postmen. Armed Israeli police, both dressed in military gear and plainclothes guarded the stations, and on the whole the area was tightly guarded by Israeli security forces’.

The majority of Palestinians from East Jerusalem who did vote had to travel outside of the city into the West Bank to vote at polling stations there.

As it became clear that voter turnout was rather low, the CEC, under pressure from Fatah, agreed to change the voting procedure to allow people to vote who weren’t on the electoral register or residential roll to cast a ballot, and to extend the voting time for a further two hours. This resulted in at least 30,000 votes being cast by people not on any register and by PA security forces bussed in to vote in the last two hours of voting. All these were the natural constituency of Abbas.

Repercussions from this blatant attempt to boost Abbas’s vote came on 15 January with the resignation of 46 members of the CEC. This was in protest at widespread voting irregularities and intimidation by PA officials.

Election response
In their analysis of the election the Palestine Information Centre, which is associated with Hamas, declared that Abbas had to ‘improve the living conditions of ordinary Palestinians, the bulk of whom have fallen prey to poverty and unemployment, as well as fighting the phenomenal corruption permeating through the entire PA apparatus’.

This position reflects the class base of much of Hamas’s support, the poor and oppressed of Palestinian society. It is clear though that Abbas will be unable to deliver any permanent relief for the oppressed as he represents the interests of the Palestinian bourgeoisie whose class interests demand they come to an arrangement with imperialism and the Zionists.

The response to Abbas’s victory from the US, Israel and Britain was predictable and reinforced what the imperialists want from him. Bush invited him to visit the White House and told him he was ‘committed to helping him tackle key issues like security, terrorism, economic growth and building democratic institutions’. He urged Abbas to ‘take on’ armed groups such as Hamas. In response to the resistance attack on the Gaza border crossing, which killed six Israeli security workers, the Israeli justice minister, commenting on the ‘restrained’ Israeli military response, said ‘In order to try to prevent the next attack we have to try to strengthen Abu Mazen as a leader, based on the assumption he can control the terror groups’. Britain was reported to be funding and advising on the setting up of an elite 750 strong police unit in Gaza.

It is clear what imperialism wants from Abbas, the neutering of the armed resistance and the ending of any militant opposition to Israeli occupation. However the low voter turnout, a large part of which was in response to Hamas and Islamic Jihad calling for a boycott, shows that this will be no easy task. Abbas’s tactics are to use this short period following his election victory, when he still has some authority, to attempt to negotiate for both Hamas and Jihad to call a ceasefire.

In pursuit of this he was engaged in intensive negotiations with both organisations in Gaza in January and they agreed to suspend armed actions to allow him time to negotiate a comprehensive ceasefire with Israel. Hamas demanded as a response to any ceasefire the release of all Palestinian political prisoners. However Israel has consistently refused to agree to any official ceasefire with the armed resistance and as Khaled Al Batch, spokesperson from Islamic Jihad, stated, ‘In the last hunda (ceasefire) we gave time to Abu Mazen to discuss what Palestinians would get from Israel. Sharon said he had no interest in the hunda and what he gave us was more assassinations...This time if there is no position from the Americans guaranteeing that Israel will respect the hunda, then we will have no choice but to go on protecting our people, because there is no one stopping the Israelis’.

FRFI 183 February / March 2005


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