Palestinian Elections: Forcing the West to awake to the voices of the people

Ismail Haniya, Hamas chief candidate, casts his vote at a polling station during the Parliamentary elections in Gaza City January 25, 2006. (MAANnews/Wesam Saleh)

The cliche of the day was that Wednesday the 25th of January, the second elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was a festival of democracy. It reminded me, one Irish friend told me of ‘All-Ireland Final day’ - the flags, the bunting, the street parties. We were amused by the hijab wearing women with their Hamas baseball caps, we were delighted by the faces of the children shouting for their party of choice, we were flattered by the genuine warmth of the welcome into the polling stations.

The entrance to each polling centre was crowded with supporters of every hue. Children, men and women handed out leaflets for the candidates. The same enthusiasm for debate and expression of opinion that I love so much in the Palestinian people (it reminds me of home) was evident on every street corner. It was in the dust. Permeating our skin, clinging to us - we could feel the passion. This is what democracy looks like.

We visited polling stations across the Gaza Strip where after only a few hours fifty percent of the electorate had turned out to vote. By the evening time - as we finished our rounds in the south of the Gaza Strip - reports were coming in that in the town of Rafah (a town so terribly wounded by the intifada) 88.5% of the electorate voted.

But as the day passed and the night wore on we were surprised by the strength of the Hamas showing. Certainly anyone who has ever been to the Gaza Strip and witnessed Israeli human rights violations and the chaos on the streets because of the collapse of law and order is not shocked at a good showing by Hamas.

The thick black sugarless coffee was boiling in pots at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights as the initial result tallies began to come in. Early exit polls from Bir Zeit, and other Universities in the West Bank, indicated that Fatah would take around 40% and Hamas around 30%. Fatah supporters began driving the dark streets of Gaza honking their horns in celebration. But an hour and a half after the polls the body language of Fatah supporters changed and the honking horns were silenced. Suddenly Hamas started indicating their confidence that these polls were wrong and that the results would give them a strong victory.

I made a late night phone call to a Christian friend in Ramallah who told me that Hamas were bulldozing the West Bank. In Palestine, where so many house demolitions have been caused by Caterpillar D9 military bulldozers, this is a powerful metaphor. It means that Hamas were laying waste to everyone in their way.

In the West Bank, considered to be the place were Fatah would claw back the losses it made in the Gaza Strip, this was a shock result.

This morning’s resignation announcement by Ahmad Queria, the former Prime-Minister, vindicated the Hamas position. Although the final results will take up to another week to come in the picture is becoming clear. Some analysts are now stating that Hamas will take at least 75 of the 132 possible seats giving them a clear overall majority.

The overwhelming strength of popular support, combined with the fairness of the election, means that Hamas can no longer be isolated or marginalized unless the democratic will of the Palestinian people is to be ignored.

These elections are as much a test of the international community’s commitment to democracy as it is of the Hamas commitment. The decision to withdraw international funds from a Hamas controlled PNA, if it is made, will only send a signal to those who put up the flags and the bunting and those who wore the baseball caps and the stickers. That signal will be that democracy is for the west to decide - not the people on the streets of Palestine, or any other middle eastern country.

An explicit, or implicit Western veto will not help the supporters of democracy - from any party in the political spectrum. It is time now for the west to awake and respond to the voices of the people - occupation and corruption must come to an end.

Eóin Murray worked in Gaza as a rapporteur for the human-rights NGO FrontLine. He holds a masters degree in war studies from Kings College, London.

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