Abbas Move Delays Palestinian Ballot Battle

President Mahmoud Abbas has formally postponed Palestinian elections that were to be held in July. When they are held, the Fatah party of Abbas and the late Yasser Arafat will face an increasing challenge from the more militant Hamas movement.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today postponed parliamentary elections that had been due to take place in July. Mr. Abbas' announcement has already drawn fire from a spokesman for the Islamist group Hamas, who allege his decision is aimed at preventing Hamas from gaining control of the legislature. Now Hamas swept to victory in municipal elections in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, but Mr. Abbas' ruling movement Fatah is challenging some of those election results. NPR's Julie McCarthy has filed this report from Gaza City.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

The local election drama being played out here in Gaza these past weeks provides a glimpse into a political showdown that will soon be played out on a national scale. Gaza-based political analyst Salah Abdel Shafi says hanging in the balance is control of the Palestinian parliament, which was due to be elected in July, but the Palestinian leadership today postponed the election with no new date.

Mr. SALAH ABDEL SHAFI (Political Analyst): Obviously, there is a power struggle going on between Hamas and Fatah. Fatah is very nervous about, you know, the results that Hamas so far has achieved in municipal elections. They feel the pressure, they feel that they're losing their power monopoly and yet it's natural that they become nervous about it.

(Soundbite of prayers)

Unidentified Man: (Chanting in foreign language)

McCARTHY: Outside a Gaza City mosque, the faithful offer their insights into why Hamas performed so well in its first foray into Palestinian electoral politics. Hamas effectively trounced Fatah in the Gaza Strip and made a strong showing in the West Bank, as well. Twenty-eight-year-old Mohamad Al-Mosri(ph) credits the victories to an upsurge in religious fervor among many Gazans, which translates into votes for the Islamist group that he says is the vanguard of resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Mr. MOHAMAD AL-MOSRI: (Through Translator) People are more religious now because there are more deaths, more martyrs and because the economic situation is so bad. When there is nobody to help you, you look to God for help. And when you only get what you need in this society through connections, and you have none, you get close to God and make him your connection.

McCARTHY: Mosri's remarks are an indirect swipe at Fatah, which for years has dominated this economically distressed slice of land along the Mediterranean, keeping the spoils of jobs and money largely to itself. But Fatah is not without its own die-hard supporters, including members of the younger generation.

(Soundbite of machinery)

McCARTHY: Twenty-four-year-old Rami Musla(ph) works along a strip of metal and tile shops in Beit Lahia. In this northern Gaza town, Fatah captured six city council seats to Hamas' seven. A handful of precincts have been ordered to revote after Fatah won a court ruling that declared voting irregularities here. Rami Musla says he supports Fatah, and is proud that Fatah is part of what he calls `Palestinian democracy.'

Mr. RAMI MUSLA: (Through Translator) I'm really proud of it, especially that we are still not even a state. We are not even independent. We are able to run a very clean elections, while in other regimes, they don't have any occupation and they don't have any elections. And here people make the decision.

McCARTHY: But plumber Riad Sadh(ph) says Fatah's court challenge of Hamas' narrow victory in Beit Lahia shows bad faith. He says the initial election was deemed by international observers to be fair, and that any revote is little more than a gambit to roll back Fatah's losses.

Mr. RIAD SADH (Plumber): (Through Translator) They are the only party in charge of the Palestinian issues since 50 years and now they lost. People did chose Hamas and Fatah cannot accept it, and this is what is happening.

McCARTHY: Lurking in this local election is a larger issue haunting Fatah. It's seen as corrupt and slow to institute reforms needed to improve the Palestinian economy and overall security. Again, Salah Abdel Shafi.

Mr. SHAFI: Hamas today is benefiting from a situation of unemployment, poverty, hopelessness and lack in confidence in the future. People want to see quick, substantial reforms. Now Mahmoud Abbas was elected basically because he said, `I want reforms. I want to fight corruption.' Now it's the time to deliver. This is the only thing that might save Fatah in the upcoming elections.

McCARTHY: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has persuaded Hamas and other armed groups to accept what's being called `a period of calm' with Israel. He's also working to bring them into decision-making. Israel wants armed groups, including Hamas, destroyed, but analyst Abdel Shafi says it is the less combative approach of Abbas that will carry the day.

Mr. SHAFI: The Palestinian Authority has to deal with it in a very sensitive way. The last thing we need at this stage is really a violent confrontation with these groups.

McCARTHY: Avoiding any such confrontation is also necessary, Abdel Shafi says, if Fatah is to survive. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Gaza City.

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