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Palestinians Vote in First Parliamentary Elections in 10 Years


The campaigning is over and now more than one million eligible Palestinian voters are making up their minds about who they will vote for when polls open Wednesday in elections for a new Palestinian Legislative Council, or parliament.

The legislative elections are shaping up as a contest between the mainstream Fatah Party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamic militant organization Hamas, which is running under the party name of Reform and Change.

Support for Hamas surged in recent months, as Fatah split along generational lines, and anarchy engulfed large parts of the Gaza Strip, following Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the area late last year. Hamas won a string of municipal council election contests in the Palestinian territories in November and December, while Fatah had to cancel most of its party primaries for the legislative council elections due to political infighting.

But recent polls indicate Fatah is gaining back lost ground.

Nadr Sa'id is the Director of the Development Studies Program at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Sa'id, a respected pollster in the region, says Fatah seems to have put its political house in order at the last minute.

"What we have seen is a totally different approach within the Fatah campaign," he said. "We have seen more unity within the group and a more aggressive campaign, which is actually showing in the polls. First of all it has stopped the gains that Hamas was making, and at the same time we could see that in the districts Fatah is gaining ground with the possibility that it will get the majority of seats in these districts."

Voting for the Palestinian Legislative Council's 132 seats is complicated. Each voter can cast two ballots. Half of the seats in the PLC will be decided by votes for national party lists and the other half by voting in 16 local district elections. Each of the parties competing has to get at least two percent of the vote to gain a seat in the legislature and six of the 11 parties contesting are expected to do so.

The Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Jerusalem's al-Quds University, Douad Kutab, says with the proliferation of political parties and candidates, Wednesday's vote opens a new era for Palestinians.

"It is an interesting battle because we have never had this kind of battle before. Hamas has always refused to participate in the elections," said Kutab. "So that is the reason we are all trying to figure out what is happening and what do the voters really think about the different groups in Palestine and what direction they want the Palestinian nation to take."

Nadr Sa'id of Bir Zeit University says both Fatah and Hamas have been profoundly changed, even before any voting has taken place.

"We see that Fatah, the mainstream group, the ruling group forever has decided forever to give up its monopoly over power and authority and is willing to share this power," noted Sa'id. "We see that Hamas has been totally integrated into the political system which has implications for the Palestinians and at the same time for negotiations and for peace in the region. Things have changed. Things will never go back to the way they used to be for Palestine."

Palestinian voters will have 12 hours to cast their ballots on Wednesday in more than 1,000 polling stations. Seven-hundred-28 candidates are competing in districts and on party lists. Among them are 85 women, and since party lists have set aside quotas for women, about 10 percent of the new Palestinian Legislative Council is expected to be made up of women legislators.