Arafat rush to calm poll critics

ERIC SILVER

Jerusalem

The Palestinian central election commission yesterday declared campaigning open immediately for the legislative council elections on 20 January. The commission was reacting with rare speed to criticism by European election observers.

The campaign was originally scheduled to begin last Saturday, but was postponed until 5 January after the council was expanded from 83 to 88 members and new candidates were invited to come forward. Opposition candidates complained the revised timetable limited them to 14 days on the stump. They will now have 18 days.

Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the commission, announced from his office in Ramallah: "Part of the criticism will be repaired straight away. All candidates will be allowed to start campaigning from today."

Mr Abbas, known by his nickname Abu Mazen, said he would be happy to meet the head of the European Union Electoral Unit, Carl Lidbom. The EU has 200 observers in the field with 100 more on the way. Mr Lidbom, a former Swedish ambassador to Paris, had complained that his requests for a meeting had been ignored.

Mr Lidbom accused the Palestinian National Authority of irregularities, which threatened the credibility of the elections. He urged the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to "take urgent steps to try to build public and international confidence in the election process".

He questioned the political independence of the election commission, which is dominated by representatives of Mr Arafat's Fatah party, and the criteria by which seats were assigned. Gaza City, for instance, has 14 per cent of the seats, though fewer than 10 per cent of the voters.

Last night Mr Lidbom welcomed the decision to open the campaign. "That takes care of the most important part of my criticism," he said. "I said they had to stop changing the laws and regulations all the time. It's important that the rules should be maintained until polling day so that people know what is valid or not."

The Palestinians are highly sensitive to international criticism. Mr Arafat, who is certain to win, is anxious to show the world he has the backing of Palestinian people in making peace with Israel.

Hanan Ashrawi, a former spokeswoman for the Palestinian peace negotiators, put the confusion down to a mixture of "lack of experience, inefficiency and lack of time", as well as the continued involvement of Israel.

"These are not your normal elections", added Dr Ashrawi, who is running as an independent to represent Jerusalem.

"There have been sudden changes without notification. The election commission has no direct contact with candidates. Quite often the local election committees don't have the facts. Time was always short to get to know your constituency and get a debate going. But now things are clearing up and hopefully we can proceed."

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