TOPICS > Politics

Palestinans Prepare to Vote Sunday in Presidential Elections

January 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: This Sunday, more than a million Palestinians will have the chance to vote for a president, only the second time they’ve had that opportunity.

There’s little suspense about who’ll win the election and plenty of concern about how smoothly it will go. This time the front-runner isn’t Yasser Arafat. He died in November. It’s Arafat’s longtime lieutenant and former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

On this, his last day to campaign, Abbas laid a wreath at Arafat’s grave site, but chose not to go to Jerusalem because of security concerns. He campaigns with heavy security. Abbas’ main rival is Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian physician.

DR. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: You are arresting a presidential candidate…

RAY SUAREZ: While campaigning today, he was detained for an hour by Israeli police as he attempted to pray at Jerusalem’s al Aqsa Mosque. The election comes against the backdrop of four years of armed confrontation with Israel and efforts to revive the long-stalled peace process.

Abbas has pledged to restart talks and urged Palestinians to refrain from violence. Another issue: The implementation of Israel’s proposed unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. And Israeli officials have talked about ceding control of some West Bank cities to the Palestinians should Abbas win.

But Abbas’s words have on occasion inflamed Israelis. Here’s what he said Tuesday after an Israeli strike that killed seven Palestinians in Gaza.

MAHMOUD ABBAS ( Translated ): We mourn the souls of our martyrs who were killed today by the tank shells of the Zionist enemy in Beit Lahiya.

RAY SUAREZ: That statement brought swift condemnation from Israel.

SILVAN SHALOM: He is using now terms that were not heard for a very long time, and we believe that during his election time or during his election campaign, he can’t use such kind of statements.

RAY SUAREZ: Abbas has also said the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands now in Israel should be honored. That’s a right Israel has categorically refused to consider.

Many of those refugees– some four million– are not allowed to vote in Sunday’s election because they live outside the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction. Only Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem can vote.

Among those who say they will not go to the polls: More militant groups who view Abbas with suspicion. Two groups who wage war with Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have vowed to boycott the elections.

RAY SUAREZ: Now an on-the-ground look at the campaign in preparations for Sunday’s election. For that we’re joined from Jerusalem by Les Campbell, director of Middle East programs at the National Democratic Institute in Washington. NDI is a nonprofit organization that promotes democratic activities worldwide.

And Les Campbell, as far as your observers can tell, are conditions in place for free and fair balloting among the Palestinians this weekend?

LES CAMPBELL: Well, I guess we’ll find out if it’s free and fair in a day or two once the voting has happened, but the technical preparations are good.

The Palestinians have a very accomplished independent election commission, which has done actually a remarkably good job under difficult conditions preparing. They have a good voters list, although there are some issues with the list that we can probably get into.

Polling workers are trained and in place and I think the building blocks are there. There are a number of, I guess what I would describe as political issues that are outstanding, but the technical issues at least at this juncture look good.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you refer to the electoral commission working under difficult circumstances. Is putting together an election under occupation a complicated thing?

LES CAMPBELL: Well, you could say that. I mean, there are just simple things. Election workers had to move from town to town and city to city, and they had to get through hundreds of checkpoints. And the Israelis, I have to say, have facilitated much of that movement.

But every day is a new challenge. Some election workers, for example, were trapped in Gaza for more than four days with important papers and materials. There were many, many frustrating days.

And it’s not just frustrating for the election commission, the technical workers; it has also been difficult for candidates, parties and campaign managers. So yeah, organizing an election under these conditions, when so many things are out of the control of the Palestinians, has been a challenge, to put it mildly.

RAY SUAREZ: You referred to some difficulties with the voter list. What were the difficulties and how many people ended up on it?

LES CAMPBELL: There is an interesting situation. The election commission actually had begun voter registration for local elections a few months ago prior to Yasser Arafat falling ill and dying.

The Palestinians had decided to go ahead with local elections and the commission started to register people. They did a good job. In fact, our organization, NDI, monitored that registration period. We tested the list, we vetted that list and found it was accurate.

It contained about 1.2 million names out of a potential total of roughly 1.7 million, 1.8 million, and everyone thought it was fine. Yasser Arafat passed away, the presidential election was called, they had 60 days to run the election and they decided to use the same voter registration, which made perfect sense.

About a month ago though, in what has been characterized as somewhat of a political decision, the Palestinian legislative council passed a decree ordering that the Palestinian civil registry, which is the general list of all Palestinian citizens, a much less accurate and up-to-date list, they decreed that that also be used.

So now we have this interesting situation with two separate lists and that has necessitated two different voting places for people on the lists. And while we are not anticipating that this is necessarily a huge flaw, it certainly could lead to confusion on Election Day and I guess, at worst, could lead to duplicate voting.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it clear where the polling places are and is there enough freedom of movement to get people from where they are to where they have to vote?

LES CAMPBELL: Well, it’s clear where the polling places are, and in fact, most Palestinian areas, towns, villages, they’re relatively small. People know the schools and schools are the main polling places, and in fact, schoolteachers are the main poll workers.

So, you know, again, on these sort of technical issues they’ve done a great job, they really have. They have slips that tell them where they’re voting. Freedom of movement more broadly is a much more difficult question.

And we have been looking at that for a number of months, and now we have a group of 80 people on the ground talking to a variety of Palestinians and Israeli officials about freedom of movement. It’s unclear now what will happen.

From the Israeli side, they have promised to facilitate the movement of voters freely through checkpoints, through the barrier of separation wall. On the Palestinian side, they have promised to do their utmost not to cause disruptions or violence in these days leading to the election and on Election Day.

But one of the tasks of the observers, like myself and our group, is going to be to see if voters can move freely, if they’re able to cast their vote, if there aren’t undue holdups or delays. I really think this whole question of freedom of movement is… will likely be one of the key issues that we address as observers.

RAY SUAREZ: The man said to be the leading candidate in this election is one of the founding members of Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s faction. How are other political forces, factions, parties, movements involved, and have calls for boycotts started to look like they’ll suppress turnout?

LES CAMPBELL: There is a leading candidate. No doubt about it. Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas — he goes by the two names– is clearly ahead. That’s not because of manipulation. He is inheriting and playing up on his long relationship with Yasser Arafat.

Most of the posters and ads that you see here with Mahmoud Abbas have him close to Arafat; they have… you know, he’s playing on the legacy. And he has the lead, there is no doubt about that. But there are credible campaigns being run.

The person that many people believe is in second place, Mustafa Barghouti, is running an extremely effective campaign. He got a lot of press today, for example, with some issues in Jerusalem. He seems to be gaining in the polls, not enough probably to prevail, but we don’t know.

Bassam Saleh is another candidate from the Palestinian People’s Party, an established smaller party, and there are four others. There are seven people. I would say four to five of them are running credible campaigns. So there’s a campaign.

You know, thinking about the election a little bit and what we are going to look at as observers, the fact that there is a clear leading candidate is not really a factor in our work. We’re really interested in whether or not Palestinians are able to freely cast a vote for the person of their choice. We’re interested in whether or not this reflects the political will of Palestinians, and, you know, I guess we’ll see on Sunday.

RAY SUAREZ: Today Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. Does this leave you worried as you enter the weekend about a peaceful weekend?

LES CAMPBELL: I think what we worry about from an election point of view is the effect of this violence on the turnout. There have been calls for boycotts from the more extreme factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

I think one of… maybe the most important issue on Sunday and when we analyze on Monday, is going to be whether or not these threats of boycott and this violence has depressed the turnout, because I think the issue of how many people come out to vote reflects very directly on the perception of the strength of the mandate of the winner.

So I think that will be an extremely important issue come Sunday night and Monday.

RAY SUAREZ: Les Campbell, joining us from Jerusalem, thanks a lot.

LES CAMPBELL: Oh, you’re welcome. It was a pleasure.