Democracy in action, Middle Eastern-style Though not perfect, Palestinian ballot gets off to a good start

January 14, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- The Palestinians' first national election campaign has begun. So far, an elected roster of candidates has been tampered with, the voting districts gerrymandered, the elections board stacked, the number of seats abruptly changed and several critics of the governing Palestinian authority thrown in jail.

Observers say they are encouraged by the good start.

"No one is perfect. Things go wrong in elections even in countries which have been holding elections for generations," said Carl Lidbom, head of the team of international elections observers from the European Union.

The campaign has familiar trappings. Candidates on the stump swear allegiance to the public good. The walls are plastered with posters. Campaign banners flutter colorfully over muddy Gaza streets.

"I painted all the streets with slogans against Israel in the intifada" uprising, said artist Mazen Abu-Marek, 27, brushing flowing Arabic script on a campaign banner. "We were in a war then. It is a great honor now to be in a political battle."

Under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem will vote Jan. 20 for a president and an 88-member Palestinian Council.

The council, the president, and an executive cabinet appointed by the president will oversee the Palestinian self-rule areas from which Israeli troops have gradually been withdrawn since the accord was signed in September 1993.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat certainly will be elected president. His only opposition is the director of a Ramallah rehabilita- tion clinic, Samiha Khalil, 72, who is running on a vague theme of protest.

Many of Mr. Arafat's Fatah Party candidates will likely be elected to the council. The strongest opposition -- the Muslim fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- toyed with the idea of running but finally said no.

Under the microscope

The election is drawing intense world scrutiny. Sixty of Mr. Lidbom's official observers have been here for two months, riding about in cars with big blue stickers to watch the campaign. By election day, there will be more than 600 observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and delegates from more than a dozen countries.

After decades of trying to resolve the Palestinian issue, world leaders are anxious to see if this first real exercise of Palestinian self-rule will turn out well. If so, they will tout it as a demonstration of real democracy in the Arab world, a world dominated by autocrats and dictators.

In the election, 1 million registered Palestinians will choose from among 700 candidates.

"It's a good step for the Palestinian people to have this election. I hope it will turn out honest and democratic," said Ramy Hamarna, 20, a university student.

The candidates are finding some customs of a free-wheeling election a bit strange.

"When my friends came to me and said we need a picture to put on posters, I couldn't believe I should do such a silly thing. It would spoil the environment, and why would anyone's vote be changed by a picture?" wondered Dr. Riyad el-Zaanoun, who quit as the appointed minister of health in order to be a candidate for the council. "Then I saw everybody else doing it." Posters with his picture now are scattered throughout Gaza.

Some candidates freeze in the unaccustomed spotlight. Cornered by a reporter, candidate Diab Aloh, a former official of Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian organization, gave this reply to a question of why he should be elected: "This is a personal matter. I don't think it should be discussed in the media."

But some hallmarks of the campaign seem natural. On a Gaza sidewalk this week, Rawya Shawa worked the crowd for votes like a seasoned pol. She was a whirlwind vision in gold necklaces, gold earrings, swept-back black hair and black sunglasses. But one young man caught her with the voters' universal complaint.

"This is the first time I have seen you out here with the people on the street," he observed dryly.

"Oww. Don't say that!" Ms. Shawa protested, flinching.

Some see the chance to pick their own representatives as an opportunity to even old scores.

"I don't want a candidate to come the day of the election and say, 'I am the child of the Palestinian people,' " said Madhat Abu-Jabal, 20, the student who challenged Ms. Shawa's populist credentials. She is from a wealthy establishment family, and her father, once a mayor of Gaza, was not well liked among the poor.

"A lot of candidates are lying," complained journalist Saud Abu-Ramadan. "They say they struggled with the people and suffered with us in the intifada. I know most of them were staying in their houses, shaking like chickens."

A divisive campaign

The campaign has brought out divisions between rich and poor, between family clans, between the refugees and the establishment, and between those who led the intifada and others who returned after it was over.

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