Turnout is high across the Palestinian territories as Palestinians vote in the first legislative elections in a decade (al-Jazeera). Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is leading his ruling Fatah party in a tough contest against its main political rival, the Islamist group Hamas. The Christian Science Monitor says the elections could set a new precedent for democracy in the Middle East, but Steven Erlanger of the New York Times warns that, by inviting Hamas into the political process, Abbas is taking a tremendous risk. Reports that the United States spent $1.9 million to help Fatah ahead of the elections (Wash Post) brought harsh criticism against Abbas (al-Jazeera) and will likely strengthen Hamas’ already strong prospects. However, U.S. officials tell Israel they will shun any Palestinian government that includes Hamas members (Haaretz). The BBC offers a photo essay of the vote, while al-Jazeera profiles the major candidates.
Arab politics expert Robert Satloff tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman he expects Hamas—whose role in the elections is outlined in this CFR Background Q&A by cfr.org's Esther Pan—will make strong gains in the vote. Successful Hamas candidates will take their place in the Palestinian Authority government, explained in this new CFR Background Q&A. While Israel has warned Hamas cannot have a role in peace talks unless it disarms, the Mail and Guardian reports Israeli efforts to prevent Hamas candidates from campaigning are actually boosting their popularity among Palestinian voters.
Hamas is also moving aggressively to rebrand itself: The Guardian details the group's $180,000 image makeover campaign. All signs are that Hamas’ new, sophisticated campaign style is connecting with voters (LAT). Hamas' progress means trouble for Fatah, the Palestinian movement-turned-ruling-party founded by former Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasir Arafat and led by his successor, Abbas. Fatah is expected to lose ground as voters sick of its corruption and incompetence defect to Hamas (Yehudi Ahronot). Mohammed Yagi and Ben Fishman of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy predict that Fatah, bitterly divided between generational factions, will take no more than 40 percent of legislative seats in the upcoming elections.
But the seeds of Fatah's destruction were planted years ago. Fawaz Turki writes in Arab News that the party has been doomed for decades by Arafat’s failure to crack down on corruption in its ranks. Arafat and Abbas also both failed to reform the Palestinian security forces, explained in this CFR Background Q&A, which will be necessary to establish security in the beleaguered PA, and eventually disarm Hamas and other armed groups.
The elections, and ailing Ariel Sharon's departure from the political scene, could signal hope for the peace process. Lebanon's Daily Star says Sharon's successor, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has made moderate statements and appears more open to negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians than Sharon was.