Tuesday, January 24, 2006

# Posted 1:32 PM by Patrick Belton  

AT THE OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR OF THE ELECTIONS COMMISSION: At the Central Elections Commission office in Ramallah to collect my press credentials, I counted eleven members of the Palestinian presidential guard with semiautomatics and bulletproofs vest, guarding an office which had received a visit today from a former American president (albeit Carter) and which expecting 950 journalists, received 1,700. I spoke with the director of the elections commission, a veteran of the presidential elections named Amar Dweik whose nervousness showed itself in a prominently placed razor cut from the morning, and Maxim Sansour, the IFES public relations advisor to the Central Elections Commission acting as press secretary for the CEC.

The 24-hour blockout period on campaigning has begun, and every inch of contested Palestine has got a poster on it, if not several. The statistics: seventy to eighty per cent of eligible voters registered, or 1.9 million; in last year's presidentials, 45 per cent of eligible voters turned out at the polls; there are 856 international observers here on gravy train outings (the French go around in a parade of several consecutive cars with large French flags atop, resembling nothing so much as a Bastille Day parade - as opposed to the average Hamas election event, which more closely resembles Paddy's Day in Boston), and including local observers and candidates' agents, a total of 18,000 people will be observing the day's voting in 1,008 polling centres. The atmosphere is one of tense expectation; elections officials fear that with three or four security service members guarding each polling point (they voted separately several days ago), each is vulnerable to attack. No one knows if the attacks will come or where; and so they wait.

The centre of operations, and hat-hanging point for most of those 1,700 journalists, is the shi-shi Palace of Culture in Ramallah, paid for by the Turkish consulate. (The British consulate, incidentally, paid for the ballot papers, made on Spanish paper; I visited the printing press in Nablus where they were being printed, and where over coffee the press's owner told me masked gunmen had paid him a visit to politely ask him to stop printing adverts for the elections; he complied, then the government telephoned him to tell him he could resume.)

OxBlog, however, is going to Nablus right now, since there are fewer journalists there and the possibility of more street action, in a city armed to the teeth. I'll see if I can get online from there, and post updates as possible.

The day's gossip is the revelation that a lecturer at Birzeit University, which prides itself on its independence, has received $180,000 to work as a media advisor for Hamas; I was at Birzeit in the morning when the news broke, with the university's president discomfited by the fact and the disclosure calling his senior staff, including the director of exit polling I was interviewing.

I'll be on Radio Open Source fairly soon from here, which is a great pleasure as they're wonderful people. More from me from the West Bank soon.
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