Updated with polls through 1/21/06. New comments appear at bottom of original post.
There is another election taking place soon here in the Middle East-- the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, slated for January 25. The most important development in the pre-election polling is that Hamas has been steadily rising in support to the point of a very serious challenge to the rule of Fatah, the late Yassir Arafat's party. Conversations with a variety of politically informed Israelis and Palestinians over the past week stressed Hamas has exploited widely perceived corruption by Fatah to create a seemingly successful election strategy. Hamas appears also to have constructed a candidate list that is heavy with repected and respectable candidates:
Unlike Fatah, Hamas has chosen many university teachers, physicians, pharmacists, lawyers, journalists and accountants as its representatives - a move that is being welcomed by many Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, where the Islamic movement enjoys tremendous popularity.Hamas has had a strategy of providing social services in addition to terrorist bombers for some time and the local support is in part due to the perception that Hamas is far less corrupt than is the long-ruling Fatah party.
This poses quite a problem for Israel. For American's, think of al-Qaeda running strongly in Canada for a rough analogy. For a different analogy, think of the Irish Republican Army and the critical role that its political wing played in developing (over MANY years) a basis for disarmament. Are you better off with the terrorist in government or shut out completely. Are you better off with a fundamentally corrupt Fatah, which you at least have experience with, or an unknown Hamas that might be a better alternative or might use its governmental power to strengthen its terrorist activites. That doubt has to be increased with comments such as this one from today's Jerusalem Post:
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar announced that his movement would not abandon the armed struggle against Israel or negotiate with any Israeli after, when and if, it wins the elections. He disclosed that a Hamas-controlled cabinet would incorporate Palestinian Authority policemen into armed groups that are fighting against Israel.So, will elections gentle Hamas? Would you welcome terrorists as negotiating partners? Or is a corrupt Fatah so unreliable a negotiating partner that competitive elections might improve both Fatah and Hamas?
Addressing a Hamas rally in the southern city of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, Zahar reiterated his movement's opposition to any form of economic and security cooperation with Israel.
"To all those who claim that Hamas has abandoned the resistance option because of its participation in the election, we say that we remain committed to the resistance," he declared.
"Israel is an enemy, not a partner or a friend or a neighbor. We won't negotiate with them and this is our final position. Palestine, all of Palestine, belongs to the Muslims and the Arabs and no one has the right to give up one inch of its land."
Fathi Hamad, a Hamas candidate from the Gaza Strip, said his movement would continue to develop its armed wing, Izzaddin al-Kassam, by recruiting more members and manufacturing more rockets and bombs.
The fiery statements of the Hamas leaders come against a backdrop of reports suggesting that Hamas's victory in the parliamentary elections could have a moderating effect on the movement.
Hamas's decision to run in the elections has been interpreted by some Palestinians as recognition of the Oslo Accords and a sign of the movement's willingness to soften its position toward Israel. Its election campaign pointedly ignores the call for the destruction of Israel and focuses instead on internal issues related to financial corruption and lawlessness.
Israel permits vote, bans Hamas from ballot
Today (Sunday, January 15) the Israeli cabinet decided to allow Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem but to ban Hamas, as a terrorist organization, from the ballot. This left Hamas with an interesting and delicate position. Because they are doing so well in the polls, it is to Hamas' interest to go ahead with elections, while for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas the Israeli move provided a possible rationale for calling off elections that his Fatah party might lose. Hamas responded rapidly, saying it would not let Israel dictate elections and that the election should continue as scheduled. A good article on this appeared in the Jerusalem Post here.
Updated with polling through 1/15/06:
A new poll "prepared by Dr. Nabil Kukali has been conducted and
published by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion during the period
from (9 - 15) January 2006". The new results show a modest decline in support for Fatah, from 38.1% to 35.6% since 1/2/06. Hamas has held steady at 26.7%, from 26.6% in the 1/2/06 PCPO poll.
Updated with polling through 1/19/06:
Both Fatah and Hamas bump up in the latest poll. That could be because fewer respondents are undecided, boosting both leading parties, or due to a house effect of the particular polling organization. In either case, Fatah continues to hold a small lead going into next week's election.
Updated with polling through 1/21/06:
The latest polling through January 21 suggest that Fatah continues to hold about a 10% point lead over Hamas a few days before voting on January 25. The two latest polls, both ending interviews on 1/21 show somewhat different estimates of the vote percentage for each party, but similar margins between the two. The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO) poll shows Fatah at 39.6% to Hamas' 28.8%, a 10.8% lead for Fatah. An-Najah National University's Opinion Polls and Survey Studies Center poll finds Fatah at 43.6% and Hamas at 34.2%, a 9.4% gap. The PCPO poll found a 3.7% gain for Fatah from their previous poll on January 15. Hamas support grew by 2.1% in that time. The An-Najah University polls showed Fatah gaining 4.3% and Hamas 2.9% between January 6 and January 21 polls.
After a period of narrowing margins, the last several polls suggest some stabilizing of the Fatah and Hamas support around a 10 point Fatah lead. The vote in two days will provide a measure of how well the polls do in such a challenging survey setting.
By the way, the Palestinian polling is very interesting from the technical perspective. It is almost all done face-to-face with a clustered and stratified survey design, using objective selection of respondents within households. The non-participation rate is reported to be quite low. And while I have (perhaps unfortunately) focused on the horserace here, the underlying attitudes that are measured in these surveys show a mass opinion which is considerably more moderate than the more militant public image of leading Palestinian groups. After the election I hope we can return to this topic, and to the challenges of conducting high quality survey research in the Palestinians' circumstances.
P.S. I updated the graph to add a poll I had previously missed, taken 12/31/05 by The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. It adds a valuable data point that agrees nicely with other polls from that time.