The 'price' of free elections

Print edition : February 24, 2006

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and other international observers at a polling booth near Jerusalem on January 25. - MAHFOUZ ABU TURK/REUTERS

The hardline tactic of the E.U. and Israel demanding unilateral concessions from Hamas in advance of negotiations is unlikely to work.

THE first seriously contested election in Palestine has produced a shock which no pundits predicted, and which astounded even the winners, Hamas, themselves. The European Union (E.U.), whose funding has kept the putative Palestinian state alive, is faced with a radical reassessment of what is now proven to have been a failed policy. The E.U. has exerted no decisive influence to curb graft or nurture good governance.

The joke has always been that the United States makes the peace and the E.U. pays for it. The biggest single issue influencing the Palestinian voters was the corruption of the Fatah regime, and it is E.U. money that has been squandered in a largely unsuccessful attempt by the E.U. to buy influence over events.

The financial scrutiny constantly demanded by the European Parliament since the mid-1990s has been woefully lacking and by continuing to pour taxpayers' money into the bottomless pit of Fatah corruption, the E.U. facilitated the rise of Hamas. The E.U. has been unable to exert any influence over Israel, whose continued intransigence as an illegal occupying force has contributed to the rise of Hamas.

I spent 10 days as an election observer for the E.U. in Jenin, the scene of bitter fighting in 2002, when the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) launched a brutal strike against the town and district which produces a high quota of suicide bombers and is the unofficial headquarters of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. The cross-border violence remains; one night we heard the gunfire from a raid by an IDF snatch-squad that seized some alleged terrorists. In the small villages right up against the Israeli separation wall, there were as many posters showing local suicide martyrs as there were for candidates for the election.

The electioneering itself was lively and on polling day boisterous, but we witnessed nothing untoward. I attended the count at a polling station on the edge of the Jenin refugee camp, a hotbed of militant activity. Although excited, the atmosphere was orderly and keenly competitive. I must add that throughout the campaign we as observers in Jenin were always greeted pleasantly and encountered no suspicion or hostility.

The new Palestinian Legislative Council will have 50 per cent of its members elected by proportional representation on a national list and 50 per cent from multi-member constituencies (in the case of Jenin, four). It was clear in Jenin, and throughout the West Bank, that Hamas had succeeded because it had been able to educate its supporters to vote in a disciplined manner; on the member ballot form many voters had opted for four Hamas candidates, whereas Fatah voters failed to show such discipline and often split their vote. This was also a reflection of the infighting within Fatah between the youth and the old guard, who had only agreed on a dubious compromise list of candidates at the last moment.

Campaigning outside the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's old city. The biggest single issue influencing Palestinian voters was the corruption of the Fatah regime.-REUTERS

The election was no different from elections anywhere else: it was the ruling party, Fatah, which lost the election as much as the Opposition, Hamas, which won. Fatah has disastrously squandered the enormous goodwill it encountered when it returned from exile in the mid-1990s, mainly through unbridled corruption and administrative incompetence. Much of this blame must be laid at the feet of Yasser Arafat, who certainly had the prestige to bring stability but chose to posture as the revolutionary leader to his very end. Under his leadership, Fatah failed to make the historically necessary transition from exile to competent administration. The post-mortem of defeat inside Fatah could well be bloody.

For Hamas, power has certainly come sooner than expected. Hamas strategists had planned for a period of elected Opposition to enhance their profile and facilitate their delicate transition into mainstream politics. Their strategy of the "bullet and the ballot" has worked so far. They have won their chance to provide the Palestinian Authority with the competent and honest administration it so desperately needs and its people fervently desire.

The concessions frankly must come from Hamas' critics abroad. The hardline tactic of the E.U. and Israel demanding unilateral concessions from Hamas in advance of negotiations will not work. Hamas has logic on its side in refusing to denounce violence as long as Israel occupies Palestinian land. Moreover, by participating in the ballot, Hamas has tacitly acknowledged the Oslo Agreements it previously renounced. Since the Hamas victories in the local elections in 2005, both the organisation and Israel have indeed cooperated on a day-to-day basis in many areas - again a tacit recognition by both sides of the other's existence.

It is fatally premature for E.U. Ministers and others to demand concessions at this stage from Hamas. A period of practical cooperation with all sides agreeing to postpone the larger issues is what is needed.

Hamas does not represent a threat, indeed it represents the most hopeful emerging sign in West Asia that the Islamists can and should be brought into the wider tent of democratic politics. The West cannot impose its version of democracy on the region and then refuse to deal with the practical consequences of free elections.

Michael Hindley, a Labour Member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999, was an official observer of the Palestine election.

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