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The Polls: What the Palestinians Really Voted For

Khalil Shikaki
Newsweek International
February 6, 2006

A West Bank pollster finds more moderate trends underlying the Hamas victory.

The results of last week's Palestinian elections certainly were a shock to the political system. While everyone expected Hamas to do very well, no polls predicted that the Islamist party would win a majority of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. But despite all the hand-wringing over whether Palestinians have suddenly taken a more extremist turn, a closer look at the numbers reveals a more complex picture.

For one thing, Hamas received only 45 percent of the popular vote. The nature of the electoral system, which magnified the existing fragmentation of Hamas's opposition, is what gave the Islamist movement the 58 percent of the seats it won. The divided Fatah and four other secular parties won a majority of the popular vote—55 percent—but only 39 percent of the seats. (A handful of independent candidates won the rest.)

Hamas's support in the wider population is even lower. To be sure, its popularity has been growing. Five years of intifada, starting in September 2000, bolstered the party's image; many Palestinians supported Hamas's bombing attacks against Israelis, which they viewed as a justified response to Israel's disproportionate use of force against, and collective punishment of, the civilian population. The unfulfilled expectations that followed the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority last year—for better governance, economic prosperity and progress in the peace process—increased support for Hamas by 40 percent during 2005. Yet even that translated into only 35 percent support among the public at large. Its remarkable showing in the elections demonstrates that its supporters were more determined to vote than Fatah's, and perhaps that some former Fatah supporters were lodging a protest vote.

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the rise of Hamas is that its own voters, as demonstrated in exit polls, do not share its views on the peace process. Three quarters of all Palestinians, including more than 60 percent of Hamas supporters, are willing to support reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis based on a two-state solution. During the last 10 years, the trend among the Palestinians has been to move away from hard-line attitudes and to embrace moderate ones. Indeed, more than 60 percent of Hamas voters support an immediate return to negotiations with Israel. Had the issue of peace been the most important consideration in these elections, Fatah would certainly have won. But the peace process was the least important issue for the voters.

And no, bread-and-butter issues were not central either; those, too, would not have driven Palestinians to vote for Hamas. The two most important issues for the voters were corruption in the Palestinian Authority—which is dominated by Fatah—and the inability of the PA to enforce law and order. On both counts Hamas posed a clear alternative, with its reputation for discipline and incorruptibility.

Knowing the polls showed that more than 85 percent of the public believed the PA was corrupt and that more than 80 percent felt unsafe in their homes and neighborhoods, Hamas brilliantly raised the importance of these two issues to the top of the public agenda. By the time the public went to the polls, almost two thirds had rated these two issues as their highest priorities. Less than one quarter viewed economic issues as crucial, and only 15 percent viewed the peace process as a top priority.

By contrast, the U.S. administration undermined its own cause; its actions did little to help the PA and Abbas improve economic conditions for Palestinians or restore public confidence in diplomacy. Washington fully supported Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, a step that was perceived by more than 80 percent of Palestinians as a victory for armed resistance. Unilateralism deprived Fatah of one of its greatest assets, the ability to negotiate an agreement with Israel to end the occupation.

This was a tactical victory for Hamas, not a strategic one; voters want political solutions, not political Islam. Survey research during the last decade clearly demonstrates strong public support for liberal democracy among Palestinians. Indeed, most view Israel's democracy more positively than any other in the world, followed by America's. Similarly, most Palestinians see gender equality as one of the most important American achievements. If Hamas wants to solidify its support, its leaders would do well to keep all this in mind.

Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.