Fateh and Hamas in Tight Race for the Legislature

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Overview:

One week before Palestinians choose their new legislative representatives, a recent poll predicts a tight race between President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fateh party and the politically novice Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas. The poll reveals that non-traditional political parties such as Independent Palestine, headed by Mustafa Barghouthi, and the Third Way, headed by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and former Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, will perform well in the 25 January 2006 legislative elections. However, a significant percentage of the Palestinians public, 21 percent, remains undecided and is a pool of votes that will likely determine which party controls the legislature.

Poll Results

The 14 January 2006 survey of 1,500 Palestinians conducted by the Birzeit University Development Studies Programme found that 35 percent of respondents favor Fateh, as compared to 30 percent who support Hamas. Twenty-one percent remain undecided. Six percent said they will vote for the Independent Palestine slate. Two to three percent favor the Third Way.

The poll shows that support for Fateh declined by 10 points since October 2005, while support for Hamas increased by 7 points during the same period. Interestingly, about 30 percent of the undecided voters favor Hamas; 24 percent tilt toward Fateh; and 10 percent are prone to vote for the independent slates. If election predictions prove correct, Hamas will secure 37 percent of the votes compared to Fateh’s 40 percent.

The Birzeit poll, which has a 3 percent margin of error, found that 83 percent will cast their vote, 90 percent support holding the elections on schedule, and 65 percent believe the elections will be fair.

No Option for Delay

Although there is still some debate within Fateh over the possibility of postponing the elections, such a move would not be popular among Palestinians as indicated by the recent Birzeit poll, and would put the Palestinian Authority (PA) in an awkward situation with the public. Abbas understands this and has said that the only cause for delay in elections is if Israel bars Palestinians from voting in East Jerusalem, where 39 candidates are competing for the district’s six seats.

On 15 January, the Israeli cabinet voted to allow Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem to participate in the elections, resolving the contentious issue that would have delayed the vote. The PA contends that the vote will be held on schedule despite Israel’s limitation on the number of residents who can vote, requirement that they cast their vote through absentee ballots, and denial of Hamas’ right to campaign in the city.

Hamas is also insisting that the vote be held on time, despite the restriction. For Hamas, the Israeli decision to bar it from campaigning is a win-win situation. Some Hamas candidates see the controversy over Jerusalem as free publicity. Furthermore, Palestinians expect the PA to guarantee the rights of all parties to campaign in Jerusalem including Hamas. Despite the recent detainments of its campaign workers, candidates, and supporters, Hamas continues to campaign in Jerusalem.

Elections Process

Eleven slates are competing on the national level, with 417 individuals competing in 16 districts for seats in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council. At the head of Fateh’s national slate of 45 candidates is the popular grassroots leader Marwan Barghouthi, who remains housed in an Israeli prison. Hamas’ Change and Reform slate has 59 candidates, 13 of whom are women. Mustafa Barghouthi’s Independent Palestine has 41 candidates. Fayyad and Ashrawi’s Third Way has 25 candidates.

There are a total of 1.3 million registered voters in the Palestinian Territory. According to the Birzeit poll, 45 percent prefer to get campaign information from TV ads, 26 percent like public meetings and workshops, and 13 percent consider radio as the best source for information. The poll found that 35 percent of potential voters have access to a computer and 24 percent use the internet.

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