RAMALLAH // Organisers at Fatah's Sixth General Conference yesterday yet again extended the voting deadline for leadership positions in order to ensure the inclusion of ballots cast by delegates from Gaza. Voting for seats on the ruling Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council was supposed to have ended by midnight on Sunday, but was extended first until four in the afternoon yesterday and then until the evening, after Gaza delegates, barred by Hamas from physically attending the conference in Bethlehem, said dozens had been unable to vote.
The Gaza delegates are supposed to cast their votes by phone. Results are not expected until this morning. It all amounts to an anxious wait for the hundreds of delegates who have nominated themselves to either of the two main bodies in Fatah. A staggering 650 candidates are contesting 80 seats on the Revolutionary Council, while there were 104 nominations for 18 seats on the Central Committee, which will be extended from 21 to 23 seats.
Four people will be appointed to Fatah's ruling body by the new members of the Central Committee, while Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, and head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority, was re-elected unopposed as committee chairman. Of the 16 sitting and active members of the Central Committee, only eight have run for re-election, though one current member of the committee, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, the head of Mr Abbas's office in Ramallah, is touted as a likely appointee.
The incumbents include Ahmed Qureia, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team and a former prime minister, Nabil Sha'ath, another former minister, Abbas Zaki, the PA ambassador to Lebanon and other figures from the PA establishment. Among the new candidates projected to take up positions in the Central Committee are Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned West Bank Fatah leader, Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief and Sultan Abu al Aineh, a Fatah leader from Lebanon.
Mohammad Dahlan, the erstwhile security chief in the Gaza Strip whose forces were ousted by Hamas in June 2007, is also believed to stand a good chance of election to the ruling body. Mr Dahlan retains the support of a significant number of Gazan Fatah members as well as from a faction within the wider movement that believes the movement must be ready to confront Hamas again. The different faces are likely to impact first and foremost on Fatah itself, though less on relations with Hamas and policy toward Israel.
Indeed, consensus within the movement has converged around the political programme espoused by Mr Abbas that, vis-à-vis Israel, the political process will continue to be the "strategic choice". That political platform considers resistance to the Israeli occupation, armed or otherwise, a legitimate option, but one that must be put on the back burner for now. As for policy on Hamas, much will depend on the fortunes of Mr Dahlan and his supporters.
But even with a strong showing, and although some in Fatah remain belligerent in their stance toward their main domestic rival, there is little opportunity for direct confrontation with Hamas, at least in Gaza. In the West Bank, arrests of Hamas supporters continue and it is not clear if the conference will change anything on that front, or indeed whether the crackdown can be further intensified.
The main change from the conference is likely to be felt within Fatah, where for years members have complained of financial irregularities and corruption as well as more general mismanagement. With possibly significant representation for younger leaders in Fatah, the conference could potentially invigorate efforts to improve the movement's financial performance and refocus its political efforts on the Palestinian grassroots.
In the short run at least, that should strengthen Mr Abbas, since it will keep dissent within the movement to a minimum and enable him to defuse internal rows more easily. However, this also depends on the extent to which sitting leaders, who have consistently resisted attempts at change, continue to be represented in the Central Committee. Furthermore, as the conference itself has shown, divisions and acrimony run deep in Fatah. And while electing new leaders will go some way to defuse differences, they are likely to surface again sooner or later absent any political achievements with Israel or Hamas.