Posted on January 23, 2006 in Washington Watch

A recent poll of Palestinians establishes a clear picture of the concerns on the minds of voters in the lead up to the January 25th national parliamentary elections. Conducted on the second week of January by Zogby International, the poll found Fateh holding a lead over Hamas’ “List for Reform and Change.” With Hamas showing strength in both the West Bank and Gaza and several minor lists doing better than expected, the Fateh edge appears to have diminished in recent weeks.

Overall, the major issues, in rank order of importance to Palestinian voters are: “release of prisoners” (from Israeli jails), “creating internal security”, “forging national unity”, “increasing employment”, and “fighting corruption”. Lower down the list of priority concerns are “confronting Israel” and “negotiating peace”. When asked which party will do a better job in addressing each of these issues, Fateh significantly outperforms Hamas. On five of these seven issues Fateh holds an edge, leading significantly in “negotiating peace”, “increasing employment”, and “internal security”. On “fighting corruption,” the two groups are nearly tied. Only in “confronting Israel” does Hamas lead.

Some of this explains the reasons behind why voters will choose between Fateh and Hamas. Over one-half of those who are voting for Fateh say that they are doing so because Fateh “will do the best job.” On the other hand, the single largest reason voters are choosing the Hamas list is “religion.”

When asked to rate individual Palestinian leaders, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is not on the ballot in this election, receives a high 62% approval rating. The Palestinian Authority (PA) which he heads is not so favorably viewed. Overall, the PA receives a low 22% approval rating.

Of those who are on this January’s ballot, Fateh’s Marwan Barghouti is far and away the favorite, with an 81% approval rating. Barghouti is the only leader who receives consistently high ratings among all sub-groups in the West Bank and Gaza. He even receives higher ratings from Hamas voters than Hamas’ own leaders. Given the net negative ratings given to Ahmed Qurei, one can only speculate how poorly Fateh might fare in this election if he had been at the head of the Fateh list.

After Marwan Barghouti, in order of popularity, comes Ismail Haniya, the head of the Hamas list, and Salam Fayad, the former Finance Minister who is currently leading the “Third Way List.”

The lowest ratings given to any of the Palestinian leaders covered (included) in this poll were received by security chiefs Jibril Rajoub (only a 33% favorable rating) and Muhammad Dahlan (43%).

While Palestinian voters appear to be very much engaged in this election, they are, nevertheless, quite realistic about its relevance to their lives. Less than one-half believe that the outcome of this election will make any real change in the Palestinian situation. In fact, if the environment were different, the outcome, itself, might be quite different, as well.

For example, on one of the seven issues noted above–“Which party would do a better job negotiating peace with Israel”–Fateh wins by a 75-20 margin over Hamas. This margin is the same among both Fateh voters and those who are currently favoring Hamas! Thus, it can be assumed that if Palestinians had any confidence that such negotiations were possible and that their choice in the election would determine whether or not peace negotiations might occur, their choice on election day could be affected. But since, for all intents and purposes, Israel’s unilateralism has foreclosed that possibility, Palestinians rank this issue lowest in importance and are making their choices on other grounds.

In some ways, this election in Palestine reminds me of elections here in Washington, DC, the US capital. Because neither Palestine nor Washington (or “DC” as it’s called) has self-government, or any prospect of receiving such authority any time soon, elections can amount to, borrowing from Shakespeare, “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

This doesn’t mean that voter concerns aren’t important, or that the process is irrelevant. But because voters understand the limits imposed on the parliament they will elect, it does explain why “internal” concerns like achieving national unity or fighting corruption rank so high. And it may also explain why, given the choices voters appear to be making, this election will conclude with no party having won a decisive mandate to govern.

Given the fact that this election will occur on two levels (with some members of the new legislature chosen in local personality-driven contests and others elected nationally on a proportional list-driven system), the exact outcome is difficult to predict. Nevertheless, if current polling is indicative of the outcome, the next Palestinian legislature will look like Italian Parliaments of old, with a governing coalition being cobbled out of a number of minority parties.

This may not be the best outcome, but it is the best that can be expected under the continuing occupation, with Palestinians feeling no real hope for peace.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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