Subject: The date set by Arafat for holding Palestinian elections -20th January 2003- does not appear to be realistic. Some currently non-existent minimum conditions for democracy and pluralism need to be established in the Territories.
Summary: The Oslo Agreements and their subsequent process envisaged the establishment of parliamentary democracy in Palestine. Seven years after the last presidential and general elections, new elections, even local ones, ought now to be held. The international community is applying pressure. Under the military occupation, minimum democratic conditions are not being met. The date chosen, 20-1-2003, does not allow elections to be held with full guarantees; they would merely serve to keep Arafat and his group of faithful supporters in power.
Analysis: Calls for general elections to be held in Palestine have recently become very frequent. Arafat has proposed 20th January 2003 as the voting date. Elections should have been held in 1999, but three serious unsolved problems prevent this.
1. Israel's sealing off of the Territories. Elections can not be held under these conditions: as long as the Israeli army is present, the Palestinians will not hold elections.
2. Israeli co-operation, currently non-existent, is necessary in certain issues, such as the sharing of population registers.
3. The Palestinians accept that the residents of East Jerusalem do not vote in local elections, but demand that they do so in presidential and general ones. Israel is opposed to this.
Israel must remove the curfew on the West Bank and facilitate the free movement of the population, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) must create a competent electoral administration, bring the voter register up to date, revise the electoral structure -the electoral system included, since there have been many complaints-, guarantee equality of opportunity to candidates and bring about an atmosphere that is free from violence and intimidation. At the same time, it must set realistic election dates.
The Palestinians had only participated in the ottoman elections of 1908 and 1924 and in the municipal elections held during the British Mandate. The elections of January 20th 1996 were held two and a half years later than planned and had great importance as a historical coming to terms with Palestinian destiny. On that occasion the Palestinian people rejected the abstentionist position of the radical opposition and legitimised Arafat as their leader.
Among the population there is a certain frustration with the Palestinian leadership for not having established effective and credible institutions, for the lack of progress made in the peace process and for the significant deterioration in living conditions. The present conditions could lead to the elections endorsing either the present power centre or the non-reformists, marginalising democratic forces. An unrealistic election date would be bad for the preparing and running of the electoral process.
Local elections that should have been held in 1997 have been postponed ever since due to lack of agreement within Arafat's organisation and to security issues. They are now planned for March 2003.
The Palestinian Authority wants to hold elections under the rules currently in force to avoid having to negotiate further with Israel; they are in a hurry. Their critics believe that the call to elections is a response to international pressure, and that the authorities are looking to use them to legitimise the PNA once more. The current system favours the established parties, which exploit the district electoral system to their benefit. Some of the Fateh fear negative consequences in the elections due to the PNA´s loss of prestige; they do not want elections until the Palestinian Authority establishes a certain degree of normality. The independent reformists or Fateh dissidents fear Fateh-Hamas polarisation but do not want to miss the electoral opportunity. If elections are not held soon it is not known when it will be possible to hold them. Hamas would participate unofficially in general elections and openly in the local ones as the latter do not stem from the Oslo agreements and Hamas expect to obtain good results in them. The PFLP is opposed to elections if they are carried out according to the Oslo Agreements.
It would be against the law for Israel to prohibit the participation of Hamas, the PFLP and some of the Fateh, as it has insinuated it might.
The present electoral system is a simple majority voting with multi-member constituencies. There is limited voting (direct election system in the Spanish Senate) as each voter has several votes in the districts that elect various representatives.
Potential legislative changes would consist in revising the multi-member, majority district system that favours those currently in power, who place influential figures and members of important families on the lists. As has been demonstrated, the current electoral law encourages localism and the election of easily manipulated individuals. The alternative is to have fewer districts. In this way there would be more proportional representation, giving more play to the political parties to the detriment of the old families and clans. More profound changes such as establishing a national list or more districts are also talked about, but they should all form part of a Constitution, not a simple law. Electoral law should be put to a public debate.
In order not to favour the Fateh, an open-list, proportional representation system (this requires that candidates' mobility be permitted) would be needed, or a mixed system with compensatory seats (as in Germany, New Zealand or Bosnia and Herzegovina). In the 1996 elections the great victim of the electoral system was the PPP, which had no representatives despite getting 7.6% of the vote (in one constituency it obtained 20.5%).
It is usually considered that six months are necessary between calling and holding elections, during which there should be complete freedom in all areas. Less than six months are left to January 20th however, and furthermore the 100 Days' Reform Plan is also behind schedule. Foreign technical assistance on a large scale is needed, from the EU, USA, Japan, the UNDP, Canada... and the EU and USA are very reluctant to give support in the present circumstances.
NGOs have been very active in proposing democracy in the PNA (efforts in education, lobbying, legal aid, public declarations, protests...) The political parties have done little to promote democracy other than sporadically calling for reforms. The parties within the PLO have lost their grass roots support, and are no longer able to mobilise anyone to bring about changes. Furthermore they are integrated in the system established by Arafat in the PNA; they are financially dependent on Arafat's donations, giving the aspect of multi-member politics in exchange. Those outside the PLO (Hamas) do not want to reform the Authority but substitute it. The professional bodies do little; they are paralysed by the lack of regular elections and infiltrated by the PNA.
The Palestinian exile has facilitated the existence of several political-military groups that are influenced by various Arab countries. The most important has been Fateh. 33% of the 1996 representatives had returned to the Territories following the Oslo Agreements.
The political parties involved
Fateh proposes a right-wing nationalism. It has strong Islamic tendencies and links, rejects the Marxism and Maoism of other groups and is in favour of not discussing social, political or ideological issues until victory has been achieved. It wants a democratic, secular and multi-religious state.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's (PFLP) interpretation of society is Marxist and dialectical materialist, and it adopts a typically 60's style approach in its defence of progressive and democratic values. It is in favour of a popular war. Two groups, more doctrinaire and purist, split away from the PFLP: the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA).
The Palestinian People's Party (PPP) has its origins in the communist movement that emerged under the British Mandate in the 1920's. Under the name of the National League for Liberation in Palestine, it was the only Palestinian Arab party to accept the 1947 UN resolution 181, which established the partition of the Mandate and separate Arab and Jewish states. In 1991 it adopted its current name and left the Palestinian Communist Party one. It endorsed the 1991 Madrid Conference and also supported the 1993 Oslo Agreements, albeit with some reservations.
Hamas does not want an autonomous Palestine that complements the Zionist State in the limited area of Palestinian territory. It wants the participation of all Palestinians in Palestine and in exile, and all Palestine forces. It also proposes that the Palestinians resident in Israel since 1948 should participate (Israeli Arabs).
Fateh, FIDA, PPD and the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (led by Ghosheh) are in favour of the Oslo Agreements (considered by Sharon to have expired). Against the Oslo Agreements and present in Palestine are Hamas, the Islamic Jihad movement, PFLP, DFLP and the Arab Liberation Front. The PFLP (GC), Fateh Intifada, Saiqa, Popular Struggle Front (Majid), Palestine Liberation Front, Revolutionary Communist Party and The Jihad Movement oppose the Agreements from exile. Many independents stand as 'candidates' for parties that boycotted the elections.
The 1996 elections
The Palestinian Legislative Council (Parliament) has 89 members (88 elected in 16 multi-member districts and the President, who is an appointed member). The results of the parliamentary and presidential elections of January 20th 1996 were as follows:
Fateh (Palestinian Liberation Movement) 55
Pro-Fateh independents 7
Independent Christians 3
Independent Islamists 4
Samiha Khalil 11.5%
These were the first, and up to now the only elections in Palestinian history. They were held in accordance with the Declaration of Principles of the 1993 Oslo Agreements, 1995 Oslo II Provisional Agreement and 1995 Electoral Law. The Declaration was intended for the provisional period, set to end in May 1999 but subsequently extended. The elections were held with foreign support and observation. Over 2000 observers from 40 countries took part, along with 10 international organisations and 40 NGOs. Hundreds of journalists and local observers were also present.
Participation was 79.9% (73.5% on the West Bank and 86.34% in the Gaza strip). 672 candidates stood for Parliament, and there were 1.668 electoral colleges (1,170 on the West Bank and 498 in the Gaza strip). There were 81 Muslim representatives, six Christians and one Samaritan. A total of 16 parties and movements took part.
Both the electoral process itself and the large turnout served to legitimise the Palestinian leadership and give support to its policy for establishing a State.
The constituencies (and number of seats in each one) were: Jerusalem (7), Jericho (1), Bethlehem (4), Jenin (6), Hebron (10), Ramallah (7), Salfit (1), Toubas (1), Tulkarem (4), Qalqilyah (2), Nablus (8), Gaza North (7), Deir al Balah (5), Gaza City (12), Khan Younis (8) and Rafah (5).
3.512.959 people voted in the elections. Fateh took 30.9% of the votes cast and the independents 57.51% (many of the independents are very close to Fateh). FIDA obtained 2.04% and the NDC, 2.25%. The other parties and movements were not represented in the Legislative Council, notably the PPP (7.6%). Others not represented were the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (0.74%), the Arab Liberation Front (0.65%), the Freedom and Independence Bloc (1.64%) the Palestine Liberation Front (0.11%), Islamic Jihad (0.24%), the Future Bloc (0.19%), the National Democratic Movement (0.19%), the Islamic Struggle Movement (0.35%), The National Progressive Bloc (0.05%), the National Movement for Change (0.08%), the Baas (0.06%), and the Palestine National Coalition (0.08%).
Notwithstanding the large degree of pluralism, Fateh had a clear dominion, making the electoral result dubious in spite of all the guarantees that surrounded it.
Fundamental technical barriers could be overcome with international help. Elections should be held for various reasons: the 1999 parliamentary term will legally come to an end, there is a lack of confidence in PNA and parliamentary institutions and a need to make these elections a catalyst for change. January seems premature to say the least, but they should be held during 2003. Elections will be of no use if they validate the present Palestinian leadership, if Palestinian political opinions are dependent on the Israeli occupation and if the PNA marginalizes Parliament, as it has done up to now.
If elections are to be substantive they must be competitive and without predictable results. The opposing opinions that emerge should be freely expressed and the government elected responsible to the electorate. There must also be a political project that goes beyond 2003.
To prepare elections in these circumstances would be invest them with scant credibility. The register of voters is not up-to-date, logistical preparation is lacking and potential candidates can not put forward their projects to electors. A procedure must be established whereby voting can take place in East Jerusalem, but Israel objects.
Conclusions: Elections do not appear to be possible for the date planned. The institutionalisation of Palestine is a necessity. The “post-Arafat” era must be prepared. It is necessary for two democratic States to coexist in peace in the territory of the former British Mandate. The elections must be carried out in full freedom and in democratic conditions.