19. Palestinian Elections: A Turning Point?

With the focus on Israeli elections, and their murky outcomes, little attention is being paid to the Palestinian vote scheduled for May 22. Could this election -- unlike, apparently, reent Israeli elections -- turn out to be significant for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Maybe. Israelis voted four times in two years, and may yet do so a fifth time, while this is first chance in 15 years for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to chart a new course.

Since 2007 nearly all West Bank Arabs have been lived under the rule of Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), while the more radical Hamas has controlled Gaza. The two sides have been unable to agree on terms for a free and fair election that would reunify the two territories.

But now there is formal agreement on election of a new Palestine Legislative Council on May 22, to be followed by election of a President (over-due since 2009) on July 31 and of a new PLO governing council on Aug. 31. Operational mechanisms have been put in place, and 93 percent of eligible voters have registered.

Will it be a free and fair election despite the two sides each having their own protected turf? The last election in 2006 was generally regarded as free and fair, since Fatah did not regard Hamas as a real threat and let the vote proceed without interference. But a large protest vote against Fatah corruption unexpectedly put Hamas over the top. Neither side is so naive this time around.

There is a reliable Palestinian survey institute, the Palestine Center for Survey and Policy Research, that has polled Palestinians on this issue. In its last survey, it found that 42 percent expect a fair election and 48 percent do not. In addition, 69 percent believe that Fatah will not accept a Hamas victory, while 60 percent believe that Hamas will not accept Fatah winning.

There are however, complications that might produce a result other than outright victory for either. No fewer than 36 parties are competing -- almost as many as the 39 party lists in Israel's last election! Two splinter parties from Fatah seem likely to attract significant support, in particular one list endorsed by Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian figure serving a life sentence in Israeli prison.

The fragmentation of the vote might, therefore, weaken Hamas by offering more options apart from the tired Fatah establishment embodied in the 85-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas. The same recent Palestinian poll estimated that the party endorsed by Barghouti, together with Fatah and other Fatah splinter groups, might gain 50-60 percent of the vote, with Hamas at only 30 percent. Despite its 14 years in control of Gaza, Hamas would not win a majority even there.

But could non-Hamas parties work together and present a unified Palestinian front, including Gaza, that could better function as a negotiating partner in Israeli-Palestinian affairs?

Strangely enough, this is oddly similar to the question being asked about future Israeli coalitions.