Friday, 19 February 2010

The Turn of the Tide

The results of a poll published yesterday contain a surprising indication of a major shift of sentiment within Palestinian opinion. If borne out in reality – that is, if the views expressed were to hold until the next formal elections – Hamas would be wiped out as a political force.

In brief, only 11 % of those polled said that they would vote for Hamas (as against 48% supporting Fatah).

Political polls, such an established feature of normal democratic life, are something of a rarity for the ordinary Palestinian man or woman in the street. In the past ten years, for example, the major Palestinian research body, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (the PSR), has conducted only some 40 polls aimed at establishing Palestinian opinion on various topics – that is no more than 4 polls a year on average.

This latest poll was conducted earlier this week in the West Bank and Gaza by a smaller and newer research organisation, Near East Consulting. Asked which party they would support if presidential elections were to be held next week, 48% of those polled said they would vote for Fatah. Only 11% said they would vote for Hamas. Of the remainder of those polled, 31% were undecided, and the rest chose other parties or said they would not vote.

The survey found 45% of Palestinians to have confidence in Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, while only 13% said they had confidence in the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.

Of the sample of 880 Palestinians polled, 54% felt the Fatah-led government in Ramallah was the sole legitimate Palestinian government. 19% saw the Hamas-led government in Gaza to be the sole legitimate Palestinian government. Interestingly, 27% believed both governments to be illegitimate. As was perhaps to be expected, the support for Fatah was a few points higher in the West Bank and a few points lower in the Gaza Strip, while the opposite held true for Hamas.

These results represent an amazing turn-around in sentiment since the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Then Hamas won a large majority in the new Palestinian parliament, trouncing the governing Fatah party. Hamas gained 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats while Fatah, which had dominated the legislature since the previous elections a decade before, won only 43 seats.

The results of this latest poll take on a particular significance since elections in all local councils in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are due to take place later this year, on 17 July.

One week ago the Palestinian Central Elections Commission (the CEC)met with representatives of political parties and factions to announce the forthcoming elections, and to stress the commission's commitment to a successful electoral process and its adherence to the principles of integrity and free participation for everyone. Not unsurprisingly, perhaps, the CEC reported on its website that no representatives of Hamas attended the meeting, despite being invited to do so.

Last Saturday, the CEC issued a Press release: "In compliance with Palestinian law," it stated, "and the Cabinet's decision issued on 8 February calling for elections in the local councils on 17 July, the CEC confirms its readiness to administer elections." The CEC called on all electoral stakeholders to cooperate with the Commission to ensure free and fair elections. The first stage in the electorial process, the Voter Registry update, is to begin within the next three weeks.

What the outcome of these July elections will be, whether Hamas will permit them to take place inside Gaza at all, and if they do, whether they will abide by the result if it goes against them – all that is in the lap of the gods.

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