PALESTINIANS Election brings hope for change

Palestinians in general expect that the post-Arafat period will yield changes, polls suggest.
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Never mind that the winner appears a foregone conclusion or that the blink-of-an-eye campaign included not a single direct debate among candidates.
As Palestinians head to the polls today to choose a president, they are flush with the sense of democracy in the making, if tempered in their hopes that the historic vote will significantly improve their lives. "We are enthusiastic about the election because we hope there might be change," said Amal Shkeir, 30, a villager from the West Bank who was in Ramallah for medical tests on a recent afternoon.
Her husband, Yusef, used to be a construction worker in Israel, but that job ended with the grinding conflict with Israel, now in its fifth year. Now he snares sporadic work in the West Bank but said the family's fortunes have fallen to "zero." He said the couple might be forced to borrow to pay for his wife's CT scan to pinpoint the cause of a neurological problem.
But both said the election had raised their aspirations. "We are not alone in being excited about the election," Amal said. "Everybody is."
The interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is widely favored to defeat six other candidates in the first presidential vote since Yasser Arafat, who died in November, prevailed over token opposition in 1996. The balloting comes amid a whirl of electoral activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: During coming months, municipal elections will resume in hundreds of cities, towns and villages, and a separate campaign for the Palestinian parliament is planned for spring.
Polls suggest that Palestinians are generally satisfied with how the presidential election is being conducted and expectant that the post-Arafat period will yield changes.
"They are searching for peace," said Ayoub Mustafa, a researcher at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. "People here think that maybe the election will change what happens on the ground."
Yet amid the lofty talk of historic turning points and evolving democracy, ordinary Palestinians exhausted by the violence also voice a weary-sounding refrain. They say their hopes for change are clouded by doubts that Abbas or any other candidate can reach peace with Israel and dramatically improve their lives any time soon.
It would be enough, they said, if the new president succeeded in persuading the Israelis to ease travel restrictions and military raids in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which Israel plans to evacuate this year. Some voters are trying not to expect too much from the election.
"Maybe it's going to change all of our lives. Maybe it will take off the occupation. Maybe we will have a country. Nobody knows," said Ahmed Mansour, a 23-year-old security guard who said he plans to vote for Abbas. "Maybe it will be better. Maybe it will be worse."
Mansour said Israeli road closures and checkpoints have stretched a brief, six-mile trip from his village to his job in a Ramallah shopping center into a 21-mile journey that can take hours.
Israel's stance
Israel says its checkpoints and sporadic incursions into population centers are needed to avert more suicide bombers and other armed attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Israel proper. Israeli leaders say it is up to the new Palestinian leadership to rein in armed groups and anti-Israeli incitement if the two sides are ever to revive efforts at reconciliation.
But Nisreem Khalaf, a 43-year-old gift shop owner in Ramallah, said control over the daily fate of Palestinians rests so much in Israel's hands that she isn't getting her hopes for peace too high.
"Maybe with a new president, there will be some improvement, economically and socially. Maybe the [checkpoints] will be easier. Maybe they'll be lifted. That would be a start," she said. "Nobody believes there will be peace, or an end to the conflict. But we all hope there will be some stability."
Khalaf, who is Palestinian American with relatives in the United States, said she has not traveled abroad since the intefadah broke out in 2000 because she fears Israel will prevent those of her children without U.S. passports from re-entering. Khalaf said she used to visit Jerusalem and other places in Israel, but now stays in Ramallah. There is almost no point in filling her car's gas tank anymore, she said sourly, because there is nowhere to go.
Khalaf said she plans to vote for Abbas, though she does not admire him or the Fatah movement for which he is standard-bearer.
Best chance?
But Khalaf and other voters said Abbas, who is viewed as a relative moderate by Israel and the United States, has the best chance of making progress toward peace. He said last week that he was prepared to resume talks with Israel.
Palestinian voters are approaching the election with a pragmatism born of the disappointing results of two uprisings since the late 1980s and frustration with the Palestinian Authority under Arafat, said Bahjat Itayem, who teaches a course on American democracy at a branch of Al Quds University here.
"After two intefadahs and the experiment of the Palestinian Authority -- people want to have some kind of solution," he said.
Itayem said the quest for results has helped boost backing for the 69-year-old Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. Abbas lacks the charisma of Arafat and, until recently, registered only in the single digits in polls measuring the popularity of Palestinian figures.
"A lot of people are not convinced about Abu Mazen, but they're going to vote for Abu Mazen anyway," Itayem said. "Why? Because he's going to deliver."
Analysts note that Palestinians are used to electing leaders of trade unions, student associations and other civic groups -- a voting tradition that puts them well ahead of most of the rest of the Arab world when it comes to exercising democracy.
Manuel Hassassian, a political science professor at Bethlehem University, said the winner does not need a landslide. "Even if he wins by 51 percent, he's in power and we have to support him," he said.
Hassassian said it is unfair to apply the usual yardsticks of Western-style democracy to this election. More important than who wins or by how much, he said, is that the vote fosters democratic institutions, from political parties to advocacy groups, and a sense among Palestinians of their rights and civic responsibilities.
"This is an interim period. We shouldn't be measured by, is this democracy? It is democracy in the making," Hassassian said. "Elections are only a tool. Democracy is a process."

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