Statistics belie talk of massive mandate

As had been widely expected, PLO chief and Fatah candidate Mahmud Abbas won Sunday's election handily, thus succeeding the late Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority.

    Abbas (R) and Ahmad Quraya savour a moment of triumph

    Figures released by the Palestinian Central Election Committee in Ram Allah on Monday showed that Abbas won slightly over 62% of the 775,146 ballots cast at some 2800 polling stations throughout the West Bank and theGaza Strip.

    Abbas' closest challenger, the independent centre-left candidate Mustafa Barghuthi, came second, receiving 153,516 votes amounting to 19.8% of the total ballots cast.

    The remaining 18% or so votes went to five other candidates, as follows:

    Bassam Salhi of the Palestine People's Party (PPP) with 20,844 votes or 2.9%; Taysir Khalid of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), with  27,118 votes or 3.5%.

    Abd al-Halim al-Ashqar, the independent Islamist candidate, who is under house arrest in the US for allegedly helping Hamas, received 20,774 or 2.68%; Abd al-Karim Shbair of Gaza  received 5874 votes or 0.86%; and Sayid Baraka, also based in Gaza, who received 9809 votes, or 1.27% of the total ballots cast.

    Modest achievement

    Fatah had hoped Abbas would win close to 70% of the votes, which then would give him a clear mandate to negotiate with Israel a possible final-status peace settlement.

    Moreover, in Fatah's view, a massive victory would have greatly enhanced the status and image of the movement in the run-up to the forthcoming local and parliamentary elections, especially after its relatively modest achievements in recent municipal elections.


    The PA made last-minute efforts
    to increase the voter turnout

    Set against this backdrop, Abbas' victory does not seem as overwhelming as it is being cracked up to be.

    It is amply clear by now that Hamas' decision to boycott of the elections had significantly affected voter turnout despite claims and denials to the contrary.

    The Palestinian Authority (PA) made desperate last-minute efforts to increase the turnout, first by extending the voting time by two additional hours and then by allowing non-registered voters to cast their votes.

    However, even these measures failed to dissuade a full 50% of eligible voters (registered and non-registered) from either boycotting the elections or from voting for Islamist and quasi-Islamist candidates.

    Fractured verdict

    In the final count, of an estimated 1,120,000 registered voters, a total of 77,2500 (62%) chose to exercise their franchise. Conversely, up to 38% of registered voters opted to stay home on election day. 

    It is further worth noting that more than 5% of the voters backed the Islamist and quasi-Islamist candidates and another roughly 7% cast blank or invalid ballots.

    Despite the win, Fatah cannot
    take its supremacy for granted

    This suggests that tens of thousands of Hamas supporter and sympathisers did not heed the movement's boycott call and chose to vote for the two Gaza-based independents and Abd al-Halim al-Ashqar (who received 20774 votes).

    Extrapolated to a (conservatively) estimated 1.5 million eligible-voter population (that is, those above 18 years of age of 18), it would seem that Abbas got the backing of 33%.

    For his part, Mustafa Barghuthi won 153,516 votes or 19.8% out of the 775,146 ballots cast. As a proportion of the total registered-voter population, this figure shrinks to 13.9% and further to 10.2% as a proportion of the overall eligible-voter population (1.5 million).

    Barghuthi ran an impressive and well-oiled campaign (raising questions in some quarters about the sources of his campaign finance), and few will grudge him the satisfaction that he has evidently drawn after coming second in the election.

    A community activist and trained physician, Barghuthi has for many years been at the forefront of an effective yet non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation, including  protests against the West Bank separation barrier.

    Fanciful claim

    In several TV interviews on Monday, Barghuthi proclaimed his movement, Al-Mubadara or The Initiative, the second force in the Palestinian political arena, implying that Hamas had somehow been relegated to the third place.

    But this declaration is at once premature and fanciful.

    For one thing, many of those who supported Barghuthi didn't really subscribe to the leftist world-view of this former leader of the Palestinian Communist Party. Their attraction to him seemed to have been more a reflection with their distrust of Abbas than any sudden infatuation with his social-democratic ideology.

    Mustafa Barghuthi drew a lot of
    disaffected voters to his cause

    For another thing, Barghuthi's supporters hailed from diverse ideological backgrounds, encompassing former communists, disgruntled Fatah supporters, PFLP followers and many ordinary people who were drawn to his cause merely by his amiable personality.

    In any event, it is highly unlikely that Barghuthi's Al-Mubadara will be able, at least in the foreseeable future, to unseat Hamas, a movement widely considered to be second among equals vis-à-vis Fatah in terms of popularity, from its present pre-eminence and prominence.

    Indeed, Barghouthi's Al-Mubadara fared ratherly poorly in the 23 December mayoral elections in some 26 Palestinian towns and villages.

    There is no question that Barghuthi's election performance will revitalise his movement's municipal and parliamentary election campaign, scheduled for April and July respectively.

    But any comparison between Al-Mubadara and Hamas or Fatah would be wishful thinking.

    Mandate for change

    Shorn of the media hype, Abbas's respectable victory in Sunday's presidential election has given him a certain mandate to convert his political agenda into reality.
    This includes his pledges to improve the living conditions of ordinary Palestinians, the bulk of whom are mired in poverty and unemployment, as well to fight corruption within the PA.

    Too many concessions could cost
    Abbas precious domestic support

    Palestinians also expect Abbas to end the chaos that reigns in large parts of the Occupied Territories as a result of the near-collapse of the law-and-order machinery.
    Above all, many ordinary Palestinians, fed up with more than four years of harsh Israeli repression, expect him to try to work out a truce between Palestinian resistance groups, including Hamas, and Israel. Such a deal might enable Palestinians to reclaim a semblance of normal life.
    By most accounts, Abbas will find Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups more cooperative in accomplishing this objective. But most Palestinians believe the electoral mandate does not grant him an open-ended licence to compromise on the core political issues, notably the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees.

    The big question on the minds of many Palestinians now is whether Abbas will remain faithful to the promises he made and the undertakings he gave during his election campaign. Or whether he will succumb to combined US-Israeli pressure to abandon them. Only time, it seems, will tell.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera



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