At the Ballot Box, Trouble is Brewing for Hamas
Observers of the political scene in Palestine are carefully monitoring the situation on the ground as President Abbas just issued the much anticipated Presidential Decree to recommend holding the both the Presidential and Legislative elections on January 24th of 2010. Hamas has rejected his call on the fact that he extended his own term when it expired in 2008 and his Abbas’ “dishonest” dealings. One the other hand, Hamas fears losing the election as the situation in Gaza, where its authority is in full swing, is dire. As I closely watch the scene I have learned of a few constituencies where Hamas might have an uphill battle.
The first constituency is the overly religious wing; Hamas lost too many votes in this wing after the troubling incident in Rafah, where Hamas and a religious group had a mini war in which Hamas took out the group’s leader and few of his followers. This particular incident made people reconsider their support for Hamas. These were some of the Hamas supporters that were essential to their win in 2006 and thus Hamas cannot afford to lose this base. People in this group do not really care for politics nor for technicalities, they just do not want to see God being placed in the backseat. They do not care who rules them as long as their version of God’s teaching are observed by everyone. Hamas does reach out to this group through their extensive network of mosques where the zealots spend most of their time. A relative of mine who is in charge of a local mosque told me that he is upset with the Hamas government because they work too hard on things that should not be its priority like ministries and needless bureaucracy to give people jobs.
The second constituency that Hamas needs to worry about is average people and businessmen who want them to abide by the law and agree to an election. Their businesses have suffered after Hamas’ win or their kids cannot go abroad to finish their education because of the siege. While fair minded Gazans realize that Hamas is not the only one to blame for the siege, they can only blame either themselves for voting Hamas or blame the world for punishing them. Nevertheless, the professional classes of doctors, teachers and engineers who voted for Hamas and gave them the chance to make thing better are deeply disappointed. Now this constituency wants to see change or just a referendum on the government’s performance. These constituents are not members of militant groups, but rather the civilians who believe in being fair and playing by the rules. This group respects the law and wants Hamas to do the same. Seeing that the Hamas government failed on so many fronts—perhaps due to international scheming—they figure that another government deserves a chance to improve the situation. Hamas’s PR people are working day and night to make converts of those doubters by telling them that Hamas is not being given a fair chance.
The third constituency is a larger one which is the traditional Fateh bloc that has always voted for Fateh and now feels change is necessary by getting rid of Hamas. By now they feel that Ramallah has abandoned them and does not want anything to do with their “people” in Gaza. They feel betrayed. But members of this group have suffered under Hamas, largely for their own mistakes. This group includes at least seventy five thousand Palestinians who still receive their salaries form Ramallah and whom Hamas has targeted. This group will be the most dangerous to Hamas if they lose the election because members of this group have been imprisoned, beaten, or humiliated by Hamas. I have personally spoken to many of them and they are upset by how they have been treated by this government and seeking revenge is not out of the question. This is not an organized group anymore because Hamas managed to divide and conquer their coalition. There is not much Hamas can do to win the hearts of these voters, but they are not passionately pro Fatah anymore either.
The Fourth are the Palestinian labor, more than hundred thousand workers in Gaza alone have seen their jobs in Israel disappear; their incomes are gone with no return. With siege on Gaza, and lack of construction supplies and material necessary for any industrial infrastructure, there is little to do. The only income they get is from charities and various unemployment programs ran by international aid organizations. I have heard officials of the Hamas government wanting to tax tobacco and gasoline and put the money in fund to benefit the labor. It seems that Hamas brought a lot of misfortune on the workers of Gaza who feel neglected. They will most likely to grudgingly pick Fatah over Hamas this time around for the one simple reason, workers want jobs, electing Fatah will bring the siege to an end. But it is not that simple as Hamas might launch an emergency food program to target this swing vote. Another thing Hamas can do is remind the workers that Ramallah continue to pay their thousands of former employees in Gaza while neglecting them.
Hamas however has a loyal coalition represented in a mix of groups.
Pragmatic Islamists are the ones Hamas sees as the next best thing to an Islamic government where they can see God-fearing people in charge of making and enforcing laws. Perhaps this is the most educated constituency of Hamas. You can find these people working in the Islamic University or heading a local charity. These are the most loyal supporters and will show up first to the polls.
Average mosque goers support Hamas in exchange for the benefits it provides. Through its mosques Hamas runs a welfare program that distributes food stamps to the needy who are regulars at the mosque. The only condition one needs to meet is to be in need and to show up for prayer. But members of this group are indifferent to politics and their support will go to the party that gives them a little bit more. Some observers believe Hamas is making the same mistake Fateh did by paying off people.
Hamas foot soldiers, not much militant work anymore, due to self-interest. This is about the only group allowed to carry weapons beside the police force. They are sort of the protectors of the government and its establishment. If the Hamas police force needs to go to war against another Palestinian militia, these guys are called up. While they may be disappointed in the lack of Jihad against the Israelis, they and their families are still the moral fiber of the Hamas government. Many of them now hold civilian jobs in the Hamas government just to kill time. When Hamas took over the narrow Gaza Strip it hired many of its supporters and placed them in government positions they had never imagined they could aspire to. Many perks such as new cars, air conditioned offices, and cool job titles came as well. Many in this constituency now teach, practice medicine, manage contracts for the government, and rule over other people. These guys will fight the hardest to see Hamas stay in power because they have the most to lose. That’s why whenever Hamas meets with Fatah one of their biggest concerns is to make sure their own employees are absorbed in any future unity government.
While many skeptics doubt Hamas will agree to an election in January 2010, others fear an election in the West Bank and not in Gaza. Hamas’s spokesman maintains Hamas is strong and insists it is ready to win any election. But actually Hamas was seeking a unity agreement that will defer the elections to give them more time to win new friends. But whatever the future of relations between Hamas and Fatah, Israel might complicate things by helping one party over another. For example, Israeli might carry out a fresh military campaign against Gaza; this military campaign might bring a lot of destruction on the Palestinians and serve as a bailout plan for one party over the other.