January 20, 1996
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EST (1700 GMT)
From Correspondent Jim Clancy
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (CNN) -- For two and a half million Palestinians, it was the dawn of a new democracy. But even as they began arriving at the polls Saturday morning, it was impossible to ignore the problems -- political and economic - - that confront them on this day like any other. The hope the election brings is not a guarantee of success.
"They couldn't have anything worse than they have now," said Haider Abd al-Shafi, a candidate for the Palestinian council. "So anything new is welcome, so they have a mood of expectation." (111K AIFF sound or 111K WAV sound)
But that mood could backfire. Fifty-two percent of those casting their ballots here are unemployed. More than half of the population in Gaza is under the age of 15 -- and even before they're old enough to vote, many of them will be looking for jobs.
Yasser Arafat has tried to address the jobs issue through public employment and huge works projects like a new port facility. But even with hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid, those efforts have already run up a $75 million deficit.
And the political challenge is just as daunting.
"The Palestinians have seen on television the democratic life in Western Europe and even in America," noted PLO activist Bassam Abu-Shariff. "And therefore their ambition is to have something similar. They will swallow for a while what is going on now, but they won't swallow it for good." (187K AIFF sound or 187K WAV sound)
What is going on now is not at all what some Palestinians want. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority has come under sharp criticism for violations of the basic rights people are demanding after 28 years of Israeli occupation. Rumors of corruption and outright intimidation have undermined enthusiasm for the government already in place.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and others see this vote as crucial to giving Palestinians a system of checks and balances. The council will be able to pass laws defining the limits of police authority, freedom of the press and public spending.
"We have to have separation of power, accountability, ... respect for legality for human rights and all this," said candidate al-Shafi. "We think this is very crucial."
The voters will decide who will provide that balance of power. Depending on its outcome, this election could confront PLO leader Arafat with an independent-minded opposition to his own autocratic style of leadership.
While Arafat faces criticism, there is still respect for what he has been able to accomplish. Despite their democratic credentials, none of his political opponents have the charisma -- or the sheer clout -- of a Yasser Arafat to make things happen. Palestinians may want Arafat, their leader, to change -- but they're not willing to change leaders.
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