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Palestinian reality show underscores democracy woes

Amid widespread discontent with Abbas after his long rule, a faux TV election may be the best the West Bank public can hope for

The three finalists of 'The President' reality TV show attend a public debate in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2, 2016. (AP/Nasser Nasser)
The three finalists of 'The President' reality TV show attend a public debate in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2, 2016. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The winner of this “election” for Palestinian president was a 24-year-old lawyer from East Jerusalem, who defeated a woman and a Christian from Bethlehem. But this was reality television — not real life — and the vote came on a TV show called “The President” that is meant to educate young Palestinians about politics.

In reality, Palestinians haven’t had a chance to cast an actual ballot for president in over a decade.

The spirited competition among the three young finalists has drawn attention to the shortcomings of the Palestinians’ experiment with democracy, complicated by Israeli military rule, now in its 50th year, and two decades of failed peace efforts.

The last time the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip elected a leader was in January 2005, when current President Mahmoud Abbas won by a large margin. Now polls indicate widespread discontent with Abbas and the long-ruling entrenched leadership around him.

“This show was an opportunity for the Palestinian youth to raise their voice and deliver their message,” said Waad Qannam, the winner of Thursday night’s finale, who was awarded a new car and is expected to meet Abbas.

“The show proves that we have skillful young leaders who can take over when there is an opportunity,” he said. “This is a message to the politicians to open the gates for the new generation to practice politics and prove themselves.”

The show’s format brings in elements from “Arab Idol,” a popular show in which viewers across the Middle East choose their favorite singer by voting with text messages, as well as the “The Apprentice,” the international reality show that helped put another presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, in the spotlight.

The finalists were Qannam; Fadi Khair, 30, a male nurse from the West Bank; and Naameh Adwiya, a 22-year-old woman and political science graduate from East Jerusalem. All are active in Abbas’s Fatah party.

Several hundred people packed a Ramallah auditorium for the finale. A Palestinian flag stood on the side of the stage, while a black screen with floating stars, along with the show’s logo, formed the backdrop. Senior politicians and security officials were in the audience, although Abbas was not.

Maan, a local TV network, has been airing the show for the past six months. The program is funded by Search for Common Ground, a US nonprofit group that promotes conflict resolution. The goal was to give young Palestinians an opportunity to practice running for office and voting for a candidate.

Suheir Rasul, the group’s local codirector, said the show was the only place where Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and many other places can vote.

“Palestinian youth do not get the opportunity to engage with political leaders on this magnitude. This program is not just a TV show; it’s actually the only true democracy in practice,” she said.

It is the second time the Palestinians have held the contest.

Raed Othman, the program’s spokesman, said 1,180 Palestinians ages 20 to 40 applied. A committee of politicians, business leaders and public personalities narrowed the list to 48 contestants. The final three were selected by a panel of judges and votes by viewers.

Over six months, the list was whittled down through written tests and interviews about public affairs and politics. Contestants also took courses in communications and public service, and put forth plans for increased political participation and better public services.

Like any good politician, the finalists were polished and generally cautious in their responses, venturing into controversial topics only when asked by the judges.

Palestinian fans of Waad Qannam, 24, carry electoral posters with his picture, his voting code, and Arabic that reads "the upcoming president," after announcing him the winner of TV show called "The President," during the finale night, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, June 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Palestinian fans of Waad Qannam, 24, carry electoral posters with his picture, his voting code, and Arabic that reads ‘the upcoming president,’ after announcing him the winner of the TV show ‘The President,’ during the finale night, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2, 2016. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

But during Thursday’s finale, they were asked a range of questions on issues affecting Palestinians, such as Israel’s demand to be recognized as the state of the Jewish people, recent executions by Hamas, and socioeconomic problems in refugee camps.

Khair, a member of the West Bank’s Christian minority, said in one of the final episodes that as president, he would work to change laws including one that says the Palestinian president must be a Muslim. He called the law unjust.

Adwiya said she would allow university students to demonstrate against her or rip down posters of her in the streets. “Yes, I would let them do that and express their feelings,” she said.

Abbas has shown little tolerance for dissent, frequently breaking up protests and, in several cases, jailing people for critical Facebook posts.

The prospects of reaching peace with Israel rarely came up, and when the topic was mentioned, contestants tended to take strong positions against Israel.

Qannam said Israel was responsible for the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence and said he wouldn’t call on Palestinians to stop stabbing attacks.

Abbas was elected in January 2005 for what was supposed to be a five-year term.

But the rift between his Fatah party and Hamas, which led to the establishment of rival governments in 2007, has prevented new presidential and parliamentary elections.

Hamas remains in control of Gaza, while the Fatah movement governs in the West Bank. Both camps are entrenched in their respective turf, and there’s no sign they would risk losing control by holding elections

In his decade in power, Abbas has failed to deliver on a promise to lead Palestinians to independence, with negotiations on terms of statehood stalled since Israeli hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009. The Palestinian economy is stagnant, and polls have indicated two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign.

“Why watch virtual elections? We need real elections,” said Hisham Atta, a 21-year-old university student from Ramallah.

But Sawsan Abu Adel, 28, said she has enjoyed the show.

“It’s good to see these boys and girls competing and dreaming,” she said. “But in reality, the ones who take the jobs are the sons and daughters of the officials.”

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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