Thanks to Claudio from Al-Awda Italia for forwarding this very interesting interview first published on BITTERLEMONS
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
New legitimacy but a strong silent minority
an interview with Saleh Abdel Jawad
bitterlemons: Do you think the elections have been successful?
Abdel Jawad: Yes, relatively speaking. They were relatively successful because they were organized in a very short time, in less than 60 days, and most of the procedures were respected in spite of the circumstances of despair, poverty, and the difficulty in getting from one place to another.
bitterlemons: There are several ways of reading the numbers for these elections. On the one hand, there is a clear majority for Abu Mazen, but on the other it was a low turnout. How do you see this?
Abdel Jawad: Whatever the analysis, I think Abu Mazen today has new legitimacy. Still, my reading of the numbers is as follows: There are at least 1.4 million eligible voters, so we are only talking about a bit more than 50 percent of the voters who voted. This is despite the many efforts by the Central Elections Commission to get people to register and the money that was spent on this, and it is despite the fact that while Hamas and Islamic Jihad asked for a boycott, they were not very active in enforcing it. Look at Iraq. There, opposition to participation in elections can be violent. This didn’t happen here. So, in other words, there is a large percentage of the population who decided not to participate, or simply thought it was not worth it to vote. This is an indication that some people are fed up with the system.
In certain places, like Rafah, only 42 percent of eligible voters voted. I think this should give Abu Mazen pause to think about his success.
bitterlemons: How important was the boycott by the Islamist parties and Hamas in particular?
Abdel Jawad: My estimation is that between 45-50 percent of eligible voters didn’t participate. Now, how much of this is due to Hamas? I don’t think this is a signal of Hamas’ strength, or that those who didn’t vote were all supporters of Hamas. In fact, mainly, I think, it was people who were independent but who think that elections will not bring change.
bitterlemons: So people didn’t vote because they are simply unhappy with the system. Can you elaborate?
Abdel Jawad: People thought Abu Mazen would win, so some thought, ‘why bother’. Some think that while we have a prime minister and a legislative council, it is all under occupation and with no real authority and so these elections are just to mask the occupation, and we shouldn’t bother, we should act like an occupied people. There are also people who think that none of the candidates represented their ambitions or aspirations or issues. People are also not satisfied with the whole performance of the PA during the ten years since Oslo. Of course, we must also take into consideration that even in the most developed democratic countries you don’t have a hundred percent participation.
So there are a number of factors. The refusal to participate is a response from different sectors and from different reasons. But this is not a success for Hamas. It is more a failure of the Palestinian Authority rather than a success for Hamas.
bitterlemons: One of the mantras of all candidates was to stamp out poverty and corruption, but there seemed little by way of detail about how to do so. Did you feel the different candidates provided clear political programs that distinguished each from the other?
Abdel Jawad: Frankly, I don’t think people discussed the different political programs. There wasn’t enough debate. In fact debate was completely absent from the campaign. This is a particular concern to me. This doesn’t mean that people didn’t look to Abu Mazen as someone who could be backed by the US and Arab states and maybe bring some peace and quiet, while others voted for Mustapha Barghouti as someone who represents the future, a technocrat who will build a state with solid institutions, etc. But I don’t think people were very interested in political programs.
Most of the time, when candidates distributed their political programs, I observed that most would not read them, apart from the key words. So it wasn’t like in the 1970s or 1980s, where people related to a well-defined political program and supported factions for that reason.
Fateh, for example, is the main political force in Palestine, in society and the national movement. From what I’ve seen from my students, who previously were very, very critical of Abu Mazen, the minute he was chosen as the Fateh candidate, that was it. I think people voted because this was their group or clan. In general, even since the beginning of this intifada, there was never a real debate about issues. Even when someone writes an article, it’s very rare to see someone answer or criticize him in a constructive way, unless it is personal.
On the other hand, we didn’t see things we see in most of the third world, like direct intimidation or dirty tricks, although there are things I would like to have corrected. They decided to extend the vote for another two hours, and, in addition, we have information that some pressure was applied to members of the Central Elections Commission to do so. Now, Abu Mazen’s victory was of such a margin that it wouldn’t have affected the result, but I would like to see this issue investigated and find some answers to what happened. We need to correct such situations for the future. In general, however, I would say we can be proud that we had democratic and free elections.
bitterlemons: How do you assess Abu Mazen’s popular mandate now?
Abdel Jawad: Abu Mazen has strong legitimacy after these elections, which can be added to the historic legitimacy of Fateh. I hope that the strong minority, those who didn’t vote, will respect the majority who voted.
bitterlemons: How confident are you that this will happen?
Abdel Jawad: It depends on two things. First on how Abu Mazen will proceed and secondly on how the Israelis will respond. If the Israelis don’t just push Abu Mazen into a civil war, I think he has many cards toplay.
– Published 10/1/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Saleh Abdul Jawad is a professor of political science at Bir ZeitUniversity.