RAMALLAH, West Bank – A voter registration drive is something of a novelty in a place where there hasn’t been a general election in nearly a decade.
So some Palestinians responded with skepticism – and others with touchingly eager hopes – as authorities in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on Saturday began recording the names of people wanting to cast their ballots in a not-yet-scheduled election across the territories, which probably will take place in the spring.
Municipal balloting, long delayed as well, is supposed to be held late this year.
The general election was to have taken place nearly four years ago. Palestinians blame the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for the delay. Israel says its takeover of most West Bank cities and towns was a necessary response to the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, which broke out in late September 2000.
Privately, Israeli officials express scathing doubts over the degree of genuine Palestinian democratic inclinations, and question whether any vote would have taken place by now, conflict or no conflict.
On Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was among the first to register – at a largely symbolic station set up inside his war-damaged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which he has not left in more than two years.
For some years, Arafat told reporters, Israel “has not enabled us to carry out our municipal, legislative or presidential elections.”
The Palestinian Authority has announced its intent to hold elections for more than three dozen municipal councils in November – although such plans have been repeatedly postponed in the past – followed some time next year by the general election.
“I hope the international community, particularly the United States, will do what it needs to do to help create the backdrop for free and fair elections,” said Saeb Erekat, a Cabinet minister and former senior Palestinian negotiator.
Palestinian elections officials said they had opened more than 1,000 registration sites in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem beginning Saturday. About 1.8 million of the estimated 3.3 million Palestinians are eligible to vote.
“I haven’t decided whether to register,” said Ramallah businessman Said Shulih. “I want us to have elected representatives, but I don’t know whether whatever happens in the next few months is a meaningful exercise, really.”
In 1996, Palestinians overwhelmingly elected Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, and at the same time installed a legislature, which retains little real influence over policy matters.
Arafat, 75, has been under considerable internal pressure to institute reforms. Earlier this summer, some of his internal political opponents helped orchestrate an outbreak of disorder that was centered in Gaza but spilled over into the West Bank.
Opponents of the Palestinian leader insist he has been using the current uprising as an excuse to evade a democratic vote. Many Palestinians have expressed disillusionment with Arafat’s government, viewing it as a kleptocracy that vastly has enriched his inner circle while leaving ordinary Palestinians mired in desperate poverty.
The voter registration drive is to last five weeks, but can be extended to seven. After that, there is a three-month waiting period mandated by law before the general elections may be held.
As is the case in virtually all matters Palestinian, it is Arafat who has the authority to set the final voting date.