Two candidates, but no real choice in the West Bank
With Israeli occupation on all sides, a history of assassinations, and a crippled economy, the job of mayor of Nablus, the northern West Bank’s largest city, might at first seem unattractive.
But Ghassan Shakaa, a leader of the West Bank’s ruling Fatah movement and a former mayor, is vowing to reclaim the post during elections this month after seven years of control of city hall by the Islamic Hamas movement, which opposes a two-state compromise solution to the conflict with Israel.
“It’s a tradition in my family to be with the people, for the people and to stay with the people,” said Mr Shakaa, 69. His uncle, Bassam, elected mayor in 1976, had his legs blown off in 1980 by a car bomb planted by extremist Jewish settlers.
But this is not an election with a real choice between two distinct political alternatives. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is boycotting the 20 October election in Nablus and 103 other West Bank municipalities, deepening its split with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement. The elections and the boycott are part of an undeclared process in which each self-ruling area is de facto becoming a distinct entity.
Hamas’ boycott comes despite its success in the last municipal ballot in 2005, when it swept to power in Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and other cities in a harbinger of its stunning victory in legislative elections a year later.
Frustrated that Fatah would not let it rule Gaza, Hamas staged an armed takeover of the Strip in 2007, which effectively split the Palestinian areas into two rival governments. Efforts to heal the rift have foundered.
Mahmoud Ramhi, a Hamas MP from the West Bank, is calling on voters to stay away from the polling booths, saying: “It is not possible to have any kind of election before the reconciliation, the election must be the result of reconciliation.”
He said the idea of Hamas campaigning is unrealistic as it faces the prospect of its activists being arrested by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. He also said he doubts Fatah would honour the results.
But Abdullah Abdullah, a legislator from Fatah, said: “Reconciliation is important but you need to look after the local water, rubbish collection, electricity and streets. We have to freshen our mandate for our municipal leaders. It’s what democracy is all about.”
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, said Hamas would have lost ground since 2005 but could have a “not terribly bad” showing. He said the public’s perception of corruption in Fatah has gone down, fragmentation within Fatah has lessened and “the public’s evaluation of Hamas’ performance is not as positive as the expectations were in 2005”.
In Nablus, there are two main candidates, both linked to Fatah: Mr Shakaa, the favourite, who decided to run outside the Fatah framework on his own list – saying it is because he views himself as mayor of all 140,000 Nablus residents – and Amin Makboul, a veteran Fatah leader whose Independence and Development list includes representatives of most factions of former paramilitary group the PLO.
Mr Shakaa said one of his key programmes would be after-school activities for teenagers, and added that he wants to deepen a twinning arrangement between Nablus and Dundee that dates back to the time his uncle was injured.
Voters thus far are not stirred up by Mr Shakaa and Mr Makboul. “The two represent the same political tendency and the only difference is a personal difference,” said undecided voter Mohammed Salih, 45, who works in a clothing store.
“If Hamas participated then there would be a real difference, but … people have the idea that if Hamas is elected, we won’t get foreign donor money and the economic situation will get even worse.”
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