Abbas elected head of Palestinian Authority

As had been widely expected, Mahmoud Abbas won the election for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority on Jan. 9, filling the vacancy left by Yasser Arafat’s death in early November.

“We offer this victory to the soul of the brother martyr Yasser Arafat and to our people, to our martyrs and to 11,000 prisoners” in Israeli jails, Abbas told his jubilant supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on election night.

Abbas won 62.3 percent of the vote, according to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. His closest challenger was Mustafa Barghouti, who received 19.8 percent of the 775,000 total votes cast.

Voter turnout was relatively low. Some election officials estimated turnout at 70 percent, while other analysts cited figures showing that slightly less than half of all eligible voters turned out. Some Palestinians were prevented from voting by Israeli roadblocks and harassment, and many others, including those in exile, were excluded from the vote.

President Bush immediately hailed the election results as “a historic day for the Palestinian people,” and invited Abbas for a White House visit. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, also congratulated Abbas on his victory and signaled his readiness for prompt dialogue.

By contrast, Sharon and Bush had boycotted meetings with Yasser Arafat since 2003, claiming he was “not a partner for peace.”

Abbas, 69, also known as Abu Mazen, is often described as a pragmatist or moderate. A longtime official of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which he currently heads, and a former prime minister under Arafat, Abbas has called for an end to the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation.

He was a key architect of the 1993 Oslo agreement and is a vocal supporter of the so-called Road Map, backed by the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the UN, as the path to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He ran as the candidate of the PLO’s dominant faction, Fatah.

Majida Nabahan, 40, who voted for Abbas, told a Chicago Tribune reporter that she did so because Abbas appears to offer the best prospect for change. “Abu Mazen is the person who can get us out of this hellhole we’re in,” she said. “He’s favored by the Americans, so we have to side with him so we can go forward.”

Mustafa Barghouti, 50, a doctor and the director of the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center, ran for the presidency as an independent. Not to be confused with his distant cousin Marwan Barghouti, who also briefly entered the race for president from his prison cell in Israel, Mustafa Barghouti emphasized the need for greater internal democracy in the Palestinian Authority during his campaign.

Barghouti has led many demonstrations against the apartheid-like wall, or “security fence,” erected by Israel along the West Bank.

Bassam Salhi, 44, ran as the candidate of the Palestinian People’s Party, a descendent of the former Communist Party, and received 2.6 percent of the vote. Salhi, the PPP’s general secretary, was a student leader in the 1970s and an organizer of the first intifada in occupied Gaza. During that time he was arrested and tortured by the Israeli authorities, and he spent three years in Israeli jails.

Salhi, too, has been an outspoken critic of the apartheid wall. His campaign stressed the urgency of strengthening grassroots democracy and addressing the acute problems of unemployment and poverty among Palestinians.

Tayseer Khalid, 65, the candidate of the left-oriented Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, got 3.5 percent of the votes cast.

Three other candidates ran for president as independents, some with a strong Islamist orientation. They received vote percentages in the single digits. Hamas and Islamic Jihad called for a boycott of the elections. Hamas said it would work with the newly elected Abbas, however.

The elections took place in the context of Israel’s continuing settlement activities and routine raids on Palestinian villages and towns. Just days before the election, on Jan. 4, the Israeli army killed seven Palestinian children in Gaza, who were literally blown to pieces by a tank shell.

Observers say it remains to be seen what the impact of the election will have on the continuing conflict.

malmberg@pww.org