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January 26, 2006

Lebanonwire

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Voters punish Fatah for corruption, stalled peace process
by Hisham Abdallah

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Fatah's stunning general election defeat to Hamas follows a decade of rule by the Palestinian Authority marked by corruption, failure to advance peace with Israel and internal party divisions.

Even before the vote count was completed, veteran prime minister Ahmed Qorei submitted his resignation Thursday to Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and said the Islamist movement must now be handed the task of forming the next government.

"We must respect the choice of the people and the party which has obtained a majority should form the new government," said Qorei who has been one of the leaders of Fatah for decades.

Fatah was founded more than 40 years ago by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who soon transformed it into the dominant force within the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

When the first elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council were held in 1996, Fatah trounced all-comers without having to worry about Hamas which had boycotted that poll in protest at the Oslo autonomy accords which brought the Palestinian Authority and parliament into being.

The euphoria of those heady days soon gave way to disillusionment as the peace process steadily unravelled before the second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000.

Analysts and officials believe that Fatah's failure to deliver peace to the residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip lies at the heart of its current crisis.

But they also point to resentment at the culture of corruption and incompetence at all levels of the Palestinian Authority at a time when poverty and unemployment have been rife.

"The voters chose to punish the Palestinian Authority as represented by Fatah for its mismanagement during the last decade," said Nashat al-Aqtash from the West Bank's Bir Zeit university.

"You must also add to that the fact that there is no political solution on the horizon and the occupation persists."

In an eve of poll interview, Abbas admitted that not only was Fatah in trouble but that it had to look at itself in the mirror to find the cause, acknowledging the party's "mistakes".

The sense of complacency was underlined ahead of the poll when divisions between the young and old guards of the party led to two separate lists of election candidates being filed with the central elections commission.

Even though the two wings managed to later agree on a unified list, the damage was done.

"The internal fighting inside Fatah and the divsions we witnessed were the main reasons for Fatah losing to Hamas," said Fatah veteran Adnan Damiri who failed to win a seat in parliament in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem.

Even though it was contesting its first general election, Hamas was able to present a united front and impose a clear sense of inner-party discipline from start to finish.

Arafat's desire for control of both the government and Fatah was legendary. Since his death in November 2004, no clear leader of Fatah however has emerged.

The nominal leader of the faction is Faruq Qaddumi, a hardliner who continues to live in exile in Tunis while Abbas is left to chair meetings of Fatah's decision-making central committee.

Arguably Fatah's most popular leader is the movement's leader in the West Bank, Marwan Barghuti, who topped the list of candidates even though he is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail after being convicted of involvement in a number of deadly attacks.

"We must take into account the problems that Fatah faced after the death of Arafat. They did not find a strong leader," said the political analyst Mamdouh Nawfal.

He however said that the real reason for Fatah's downfall was the lack of progress in the peace process, saying it was unfair to point the finger of blame at the Palestinians.

"Mainly it is the results of the failure of the peace process and Israeli escalations and the fact that the American administration did not apply any pressure on Israel to move the peace process forward."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas both endorsed an internationally-backed peace plan known as the roadmap some three years ago aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state.

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