Palestinians relish their first chance to vote

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The Independent Online
Jerusalem - His hands covered with paste, Montasser Abu Rumei, a young election worker was sticking up election posters on a pitch dark night in al-Swahareh village, east of Jerusalem, writes Patrick Cockburn.

He said he did not need a torch because "during the intifada, I got used to putting up posters of martyrs killed by the Israelis without using a light so the soldiers could not see me".

His posters now have pictures of live rather than dead Palestinians. They show three who want to represent greater Jerusalem in the 88-member Palestinian Council, to be elected on 20 January. In al-Swahareh, as in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, every flat surface is covered with pictures of the 700 candidates.

Despite the haste with which the election was arranged - the size of the council was only settled three weeks before the polling day - Palestinians are enthusiastic about the poll. "It is a step towards us building our own state," said Riyadh Abbassi in the election headquarters of a candidate in Abu Dhis, in the same constituency.

Not everybody feels that way about the first elected Palestinian assembly. Montasser said until recently he had belonged to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), based in Damascus, which has rejected the Oslo accords. "We split because they boycotted the election," he said, adding that he now supports a party that co-operates with Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO.

As Montasser was speaking, a local leader who has remained loyal to the Democratic Front appeared and justified his party's refusal to take part. "It gives us complete control of just 3 per cent of the West Bank; 27 per cent is mixed control with the Israelis and they still hold 70 per cent of the land," he said. "The Israeli settlements are still here and there is no right for the refugees of 1948 to return."

There is no doubt that most Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem do want to vote. European election monitors say they were impressed with the efficiency with which just over a million voters were registered. Even people given little chance of winning seats have mounted enthusiastic campaigns.

The enthusiasm is surprising, as only one of the broadly-based parties, Mr Arafat's Fatah organisation, is fighting the election. The two biggest parties in the secular opposition, the DFLP and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), are boycotting the poll. Despite last- minute negotiations in Cairo, the militant Islamic organisation Hamas also refused to put up candidates.

Many local activists in the boycotting parties were keen to participate but were overruled by leaderships based abroad. As a result, polls show support for Hamas has dropped from 17 per cent to less than 10 per cent. The secular opposition has also seen a steep fall in its support.

Saeb Erekat, the former minister of local government who devised the electoral law and is a candidate in Jericho, says Mr Arafat did what he could to get the opposition to stand.

Mr Arafat would like some Hamas leaders to stand, but also would like Hamas to split. He has also made sure that the minorities, including Christians in Bethlehem and 300 Samaritans on a mountain top near Nablus, are represented.

There is a regal quality aboutthe way Mr Arafat decrees who contests seats. Carl Lidbom, the head of the European Union monitors, complained last month when the number of seats in the council was increased by five by a presidential decree. A 22-day campaign was shortened to two weeks.

Mr Arafat wants the council to consist of more than Fatah militants, so representatives of important clans, rich families and minorities have been favoured.

Critics complain that Fatah will resemble the ruling Baath party in Syria. Arafat supporters insist that even if he wanted this, Palestinians have been politically active for too long for him to get away with it.