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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 January 2006, 02:14 GMT
Q&A: Palestinian elections
The BBC News website examines the key questions surrounding the Palestinian legislative elections on 25 January.

What is at stake in the elections?

Sixteen constituencies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will choose 132 members of the Palestinian parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council or PLC, which will sit for four years - though it has been 10 years since the last parliamentary election.

The PLC was created in 1995 under the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, known as Oslo II or the Taba Agreement.

Along with the directly elected president, the PLC controls the Palestinian Authority.

Parliamentary elections have been repeatedly delayed by the Palestinian Authority, which says the Israeli occupation and the security situation made elections impossible.

These elections were last scheduled for July 2005.

Who is eligible to vote?

Only Palestinians resident in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem can vote.

There are about 1.34 million eligible voters.

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (about one million people) are not eligible to vote, nor are the estimated four million Palestinians and their descendants who live as refugees in other countries.

The 100,000 eligible voters living in East Jerusalem - which Israel has annexed and sees as its exclusive domain, while international law decrees it to be occupied territory - have their own special arrangements.

Israel had threatened to ban voting there - Oslo II prohibits Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem until the city's status is determined by negotiation - but, after international pressure, decided to allow Palestinian residents to vote through an "absentee ballot" at five city post offices, as they did in 1996.

However, just 6,300 residents will be allowed to vote in this way. The remainder will have to travel outside the city boundaries to vote.

Israel refused to allow banned militant groups such as Hamas to campaign or field candidates in the city.

It says Oslo II bars candidates or parties who "pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful or non-democratic means" from contesting elections.

What are the voting arrangements?

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission (CEC) is in charge of running and monitoring the election.

The commission is made up of nine members, selected from Palestinian judges, academics and lawyers.

Half of the 132 seats in the PLC will be distributed by proportional representation, while the other half will be contested by individual candidates in a "first past the post" system.

An electoral register prepared by the CEC will be used for the first time.

Voting starts at 0700 local time (0500 GMT) and ends at 1900 (1700 GMT). It can be extended by two hours if necessary.

The Palestinian Elections Law stipulates that at least one woman should be among the first three names on any party list, at least one woman among the next four names, and at least one woman among each five names after that.

Six seats in all are also allocated to Christian candidates.

Who are the main contenders?

Dozens of individuals and parties will contest the election.

However the two biggest groups will be Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement and the Islamist militant group, Hamas.

Fatah has been the dominant force in Palestinian politics and de facto ruling party for many decades.

It currently holds 49 of the 88 seats in the PLC, with another 15 independent deputies affiliated to Fatah.

However, the party is struggling to shake off a reputation for corruption and cronyism.

Divisions within the party recently surfaced as a younger and more radical group led by Marwan Barghouti registered their own list of candidates for the elections.

But the so-called "new guard" agreed to rejoin a unified list shortly before the deadline for registration.

Hamas, running as the "Change and Reform List", is contesting parliamentary elections for the first time.

Appealing strongly to voters who think it is time for change in the Palestinian leadership, Hamas has highlighted its determination to stamp out "rampant" corruption in Palestinian politics.

The party combines a hardline stance towards Israel - including advocating armed attacks and refusing negotiations - with an established social welfare programme, and strict Islamic principles.

In an apparent effort to broaden its appeal to voters, the Change and Reform List's manifesto makes no mention of the destruction of Israel - an aim which is contained in Hamas' charter.

The party is fielding 62 candidates in the elections, the largest number for any party, and polls suggest the Islamist movement could win up to a third of the vote.

Is the vote likely to be disrupted by violence?

The run-up to the election has been marred by violence, with gunmen linked to Fatah storming party and CEC offices in protest at the selection of the party's candidates.

Fatah and Hamas have agreed to work together to ensure the elections are not marred by violence. A ban on weapons near polling stations will apply to everyone, including bodyguards.

The two groups also warned anybody planning to sabotage the elections that they would be isolated, marginalised and condemned.

Security has been stepped up, with Palestinian security personnel allowed to vote two days early in order to free them up to protect the polling stations.

Are these elections particularly significant?

The elections are important for the democratic process in the Palestinian territories and they could help revive the stalled peace process.

President Abbas' Palestinian Authority needs to acquire further legitimacy after it repeatedly delayed the elections.

Any further delays, violence, or electoral fraud will be viewed with dismay by Palestinians.

Hamas' participation in the political process and any future government - though Israel and the US may be unhappy about it - could lead to a softening of the groups stance against Israel.

Both Mr Abbas and acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have said they are willing to resume the peace process once results from the poll and the Israeli general election at the end of March are announced.

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