Final days of a Palestinian election

Regardless of the results, the Palestinian elections to succeed the late President Yasser Arafat will help expose the Palestinian people to the real substance of true Democracy.

There are many candidates running in the Jan. 9 elections, but the two frontrunners appear to be Mahmoud Abbas and Mustafa Barghouti. Abbas succeeded Arafat as head of the PLO and previously served as the nation’s first prime minister, an Barghouti is a longtime activist who has helped provide medical services and to expand democratic options to Palestinians.

The election actually has a “campaign,” which means the candidates travel throughout the territories and “speak” to the public. They are debating the issues. Each has their own agenda, although the actual campaigns are far from what most people in veteran Democracies might recognize. And the candidates are exploiting professional campaign consultants, a necessity to a professionally run election.

This election is set in the unusual setting of a continued Israeli occupation that is oftentimes brutal and prohibiting.

In one instance in the final hours of the campaign, Barghouti was arrested by Israeli occupation soldiers when he tried to visit the Haram al-Ash Sharif (known as the Temple Mount to Jews). It exposes the Israeli claim that Jerusalem is an “open city” when in fact many consider it more closed today than ever before.

There are other issues. Major factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, organizations that have embraced all out violence including suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism against Israel, have refused to field candidates in the election.

The power base of Hamas and Islamic Jihad is founded on intimidation and threats of violence, not on popularity. Clearly, had they fielded a candidate, their candidate would have lost. They seem only to have regional strength in pockets of Palestinian communities. In the past, they have won university and union elections, although their strength has increased in recent months winning a majority of municipal council elections.

Of course, Hamas always does best in conflict and high emotions and most of the vote for Hamas was really more a rejection of compromise with Israel.

Democracy is about candidates building coalitions based on individual issues, not more broad-based ideologies or on religion. Religion has no active place in Democracy, except as a beneficiary of Democracy. People should be able to practice whatever religion they prefer, something Palestinians and Israelis seem to ignore in defining their own national movements.

Many internationals have traveled to Palestine to monitor the elections. Usually, people fear the incumbent government will steal the election. In this case, the real fear is that Israel is trying to manipulate the election behind-the-scenes, as is evidenced by the brief detention this week in East Jerusalem by Israeli occupation soldiers.

Richard Gere, the American movie star who has shown a longstanding interest in helping to promote peace in the Middle East has not only visited the region to encourage the peace movement, but he even taped a TV commercial urging Palestinians to vote.

It was a very courageous move on his part, especially in a society best known for criticizing everyone who tries to help them.

Gere’s efforts were criticized by some, but the bottom line is that his message that Palestinians should vote is an important one and needs to be repeated.

Palestinians are oftentimes their own victims.

When they could help to make a difference in Israel’s elections, those who are Israeli citizens boycotted the election in 2000 helping Ariel Sharon to defeat Ehud Barak.

To many Palestinians, they see no difference between Sharon and Barak, but that is the narrow and blurred vision of a people deprived of democratic rights for so long both as a result of the Israeli occupation and as a result of the tyranny of the Palestinian Revolution.

Abbas is expected to win, and already inexperienced pundits are predicting that if he doesn’t receive a 70 percent plus vote from voters, he will be a “loser.”

That’s the same logic that forces most dictators to demand that they and no one else run in elections. Saddam Hussein ran for “re-election” and claimed to have won more than 99.9 percent of the vote. Anything less to him and the Iraqi people would have been considered a defeat.

It’s not, but that’s what happens to people who have only experienced tyranny and dictatorships all of their lives and generations.

In a real Democracy, a victory is a victory if the winner receives 50 percent plus 1 vote of all the votes cast. A landslide is usually defined as someone who has a plurality (margin of victory) of 8 to 12 percent.

Regardless of who wins or the margin of victory, Palestinians should do their best to escape the plague of cynicism and embrace democracy for what it offers.

Free speech is essential, but breaking out of the old habits of “all or nothing” is something Palestinians have a long way to go to overcome.

Both Abbas and Barghouti, and the other candidates, have contributed towards helping the Palestinian people to move closer toward those goals and to true Democratic freedom. For that, they are both winners.