Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Poll Dampens Militant Group

Ferry Biedermann

JERUSALEM, May 6 2005 (IPS) - Fatah maintained its position this week as the largest party by far in the Palestinian territories, despite earlier signs of weakness and a strong showing by the militant Hamas movement in the municipal elections.

Preliminary results from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip show Fatah with 56 percent of the popular vote, against 33 percent for Hamas.

The results are seen as a victory for Fatah, the governing party in the Palestinian Authority. Fatah is the main component of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) that was headed by the icon of the Palestinian struggle, Yasser Arafat. Criticism of Fatah for corruption, inefficiency, bad government and authoritarian behaviour had multiplied after Arafat’s death last year.

The party was seen to be in disarray internally, with the ‘old guard’ of former Arafat associates pitted against a ‘young guard’ that had dominated the Intifadah, the militant Palestinian uprising. Locally, party branches had often failed to agree a list of candidates, leading to a split vote and significant losses to Hamas.

Fatah leaders seem to have learned a lesson form those earlier rounds. The fact that Fatah seems to have held its ground this time will give some comfort to the Israelis and Americans who had been loath to see Hamas gain power in the PA. This was the third and so far largest round in local elections, where 400,000 people were eligible to vote in more than 80 municipalities.

The municipal vote is seen as an encouraging sign ahead of the general elections for the Palestinian parliament due in July.

The date of the parliamentary polls also seems much firmer. Fatah stalwarts in the outgoing Palestinian Legislative Council had talked about postponing the election because of fears of a Hamas win.

Fatah has also won a string of elections for student councils at Palestinian universities. This is significant because many councils had become increasingly militant over the last five years.

The firming up of support for Fatah is interpreted by many in the Palestinian territories as a vote of confidence in the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas and in the security reforms he has started to carry out. It may also be a reaction to a significant drop in violence affecting the population since he reached a ceasefire deal with Israel in February.

But it may be much too early to jump to conclusions, other analysts warn. The municipal polls are often influenced by local issues and family and tribal considerations. The dissatisfaction with Abbas and Fatah is still very high, because he is seen as unable to deliver on some of the promises that the Israelis made to him, in particular a further release of prisoners and the handover of towns on the West Bank to Palestinian security control.

Hamas, on the other hand, is still basking in popularity resulting from its leading role in fighting the Israelis. It has also over the years built up a reputation as a trustworthy and honest party whose representatives are not tainted by corruption. It has gained the confidence of many voters with an extensive network of social services that are often not provided by the PA.

In earlier rounds, Hamas made enormous inroads into traditional Fatah territory. It was the first time the movement participated in any official elections in the Palestinian territories.

After the latest round of voting, Hamas leaders sounded disappointed, and the movement may have fallen victim to its own high expectations. Hamas spokesmen had earlier indicated they might even command a higher share of the popular vote than Fatah. Some of their spokesmen challenged the exit polls and in a few cases contested the actual results.

Hamas put up a strong showing in three of the four major towns that went to the polls Thursday. In the West Bank town of Qalqilya, the movement swept all the seats. In Rafah on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip and in Beit Lahiya, in the north of the Strip, Hamas seemed to be heading for victory.

All three towns have suffered more than most under the violence of the last four years, which may have radicalised the population.

Qalqilya is almost completely surrounded by the separation barrier that Israel is building on the West Bank. Rafah, on the Egyptian border where the Israeli army patrols, has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting, and thousands of Palestinian homes have been demolished there. And Beit Lahiya has borne the brunt of Israeli retaliations for the firing of Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot.

Turnout was high, with 70 percent of eligible voters showing up in the West Bank and 80 percent in Gaza. Fatah seemed set to win control in more than 50 municipalities, and Hamas in 28.

Bu Hamas said it would control more councils because many candidates who ran as independents also sympathised with the Islamic movement.

There were some reports of violence. In the West Bank village Atara gunmen stormed the elections headquarters and stole the ballot boxes. Hamas says this happened because it was headed for a win there.

European and other international election observers will present their findings Sunday, when final results are expected.

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