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A great experiment is to take place in the Palestinian Authority the first week of December: Stage I of municipal and local council elections, the first ever under the PA.

The elections are scheduled to take place in three stages over the course of a year, with the first elections to be held in 36 municipalities and local councils - 10 in the Gaza Strip and the rest in the West Bank.

Elections in the West Bank will be held in Abu Dis, Azzariyeh, Jericho, Halhul, Uzun, Tubas, Yabed, and the villages of Silwad and Dir Dibwan, Beita and Beit Furiq. Residents in the Gaza Strip will go to the polls in Beit Hanun, Dir al-Balah and Mu'azi, among other places.

Voter registration begins on September 4, for general elections for the Legislative Council and the presidency - an election date has not been set - as well as for local elections. On that same day, the minister of local government, Jamal Shobaki, is to declare the date for local elections, which will take place 90 days later.

The opposition groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Democratic Front have announced that they will take part in the elections.

Some view Shobaki's expected announcement as an achievement for the "younger generation" or the "representatives of the internal activists," i.e. the activists in the territories, as opposed to the veteran leadership that came from Tunisia when the PA was established.

The former have been trying unsuccessfully for years to push for elections in the Fatah institutions, in principled support for the democratic process and as part of the intergenerational and interfactional struggle, as well as with the realization that Fatah has been losing its status.

Once they understood that they were not going to force Arafat to hold elections to the Fatah's higher institutions, they began working over the past year toward elections to the local councils, even at the price of possible victory for Hamas and their supporters in some locales.

Supporters of elections in Fatah believe that the "internal activists" will garner a power base as local leaders during the process of an election campaign.

In the natural course of things, they will then overshadow Fatah's senior leadership, and the absurdity of not holding elections for the Fatah institutions will be highlighted.

When the idea of local elections was raised in meetings of the Fatah, the official reasons put forth against having them had to do with the difficulty of holding elections under Israeli occupation. Supporters of the idea underscored the demand by donor nations for reforms in the PA, and the need to strengthen Fatah's status in the community. Their attempts during Abu Mazen's tenure to pass a decision to hold local elections failed, but they succeeded under Abu Ala.

In the words of one of the prominent members of this group, the whole process of electing representatives by the entire public may weaken the concentration of power in Arafat's hands, and strengthen the public's democratic awareness.

Arafat has always been suspicious of elected officials, and has promoted those who have failed in elections.

This internal struggle in Fatah led to Arafat's signing in May a "presidential order" for local elections, but at the same time, according to one of the "internal" activists, Arafat pressured a number of his loyalists to speak out against the idea of local elections in the shadow of the Israeli occupation. But Shobaki threatened about a month ago that he would resign from the government "within two months" if the local election process withered away.

The term "experiment" is fitting from a number of points of view. These are the first local elections in the PA, as the current councils and their heads are Arafat appointees. Elections now will take place under political, security and economic conditions several times worse than those before 2000, with full Israeli occupation, extreme limitations on freedom of movement, poverty that has brought about the dwindling of municipal and council budgets, weak institutions, a lower-than-ever image of the PA and the party in power - Fatah - as well as internal political and social tensions.

This is an experiment under very unfriendly conditions both for the voters and the candidates.

The Ministry of Local Government believes that under the present conditions, they will not be able to hold elections simultaneously in all 118 municipalities, 11 local councils, 241 village councils and 127 local committees. It was therefore decided to hold the elections in three stages, the first of which will be in the smaller, relatively stable municipalities and local councils.

However as a Local Council Ministry spokesperson put it in speaking to a European Union representative, local elections are also a test for the Israeli occupation before the whole world: To what extent, if at all, will they try to disrupt the Palestinian democratic process by arresting candidates during the campaign, curtailing freedom of movement, or carrying out military operations?

The Palestinian opposition sees the experiment as a test of Fatah's intentions. They are concerned that the first stage of the elections will be the last as well, and that Fatah, as the party in power, will stop the process if its candidates do not win sweeping victories, or if they win in "easy" places. The election committee is therefore demanding that Shobaki declare the election dates of all three stages ahead of time, and not only the first.

Some are concerned that the 36 places with the greatest chances of Fatah wins have been hand-picked for the first stage. But one Hamas supporter said he actually believed that at least in some of the Gaza Strip councils, Hamas candidates stand a chance of being elected.

General and local elections are only part of the demands for reform put forward by the donor countries. They hoped at first that the general elections would come before local elections, but general elections are impossible at this stage for a number of reasons, outlined by one European diplomat: There is no chance that Israel will create the one condition essential for these elections, which is redeploying to pre-September 2000 lines. There is equally no chance that the European countries can or would demand that of Israel.

The U.S. is opposed to combined elections for the presidency and the Legislative Council, because elections for the presidency mean the reelection of Yasser Arafat, whom they are boycotting. The EU representatives have therefore accepted the Palestinian idea for gradual local elections first.

At the behest of the Palestinian government, the local council election law from 1996 was amended and is now awaiting its third reading in the Legislative Council. The main change in the law is that a mayor or local council head will be elected by the elected local council, and not directly by the public. Hamas opposed this change, claiming that it stems from Arafat's desire to stunt the growth of local leadership. Others say that the change is a positive one, because every leader's authority must be curbed, even that of a local leader. However they admit that elections of this type can create instability in the councils.