Palestine took an important step towards building a democratic system when it held presidential, local and legislative elections. Combined, they set a democratic precedent in the region. The preparations for local and legislative elections signalled the beginnings of the journey towards democracy from which there can be no return.
What conclusions can be drawn from an analysis of the presidential election results?
We must be careful neither to exaggerate, nor underestimate, their importance. One thing, though, is beyond doubt: the elections had a strong impact on the Arab world, not least because they focussed attention on the rise of non-religious, democratic Arab opposition movements.
Despite the pressures faced by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and its Central Elections Committee which led, during the final three hours of the poll to a number of irregularities — a reversion to old habits — the democratic process was on the whole sound, an impression supported by the conduct of the subsequent municipal elections.
The concept of pluralism is now established, and democratic competition has become a reality. From now on the legitimacy of the leadership will be determined by the ballot box.
The elections discredited the notion that Palestinian society is polarised between Hamas and Fatah. The Western and Israeli press have long pushed this line. What the presidential elections revealed was the existence of a third, democratic trend. Its representatives won up to 30 per cent of the vote if we discount suspect ballots and the repeat voting that occurred in the last three hours of the poll. This fact supports the findings of opinion polls which for some years now have indicated that there is a silent majority of at least 40 to 45 per cent of the population that gravitates towards neither Fatah nor Hamas.
In the past it was Hamas that benefited from the absence of a democratic opposition trend, attracting protest votes in the face of popular discontent with PNA corruption and poor administration. The alliance between the National Initiative, independent labour committees, the Popular Front and independents that emerged during the presidential elections represents an alternative focus for protest.
This trend will grow if all democratic opposition forces join it. The decision by Palestinian factions to halt military actions, and the entry of Islamic forces into the political arena, further opens the door to the development of the type of resistance and popular struggle in which democratic forces and civil society take the lead.
The presidential elections, contested by seven candidates, broke the barrier of fear that had held back some opposition forces. It became clear to the public that the threats made in earlier elections were as hollow as many of the promises made during the campaign.
The result will be bolder and more enthusiastic political participation. The Palestinian experience will once again show that democracy is actualised through struggle. And there can be no struggle for democracy without a real and effective opposition.
The election has also exposed the myth that the PNA and the ruling party can somehow reform and democratise themselves, and that smaller groupings will be able to wear two hats, participating in government while at the same time retaining their opposition credentials.
This is not to deny that there are those within Fatah who support reform. It is just that Fatah’s internal struggles are overwhelmingly characterised by competition for power and influence within the PNA. Nor can the public be expected to accept members of the government competing in their criticism of government while simultaneously pocketing its gains.
The presidential elections provided an opportunity for the public to choose between different platforms and visions of the national struggle, internal reform and on social issues. And the return polls revealed the enormous potential of the democratic opposition. It tended to attract the support of the youngest and best-educated, those who want a deep-rooted solution to Palestinian problems as well as a complete purge of corruption and favouritism. Most work in productive sectors, away from the government apparatus, and most are politically independent.
Free and direct elections are indispensable to any democratic system though their existence does not in itself constitute democracy. The Palestinian presidential elections revealed a number of obstacles to the building of a real democratic system the most significant of which are listed below.
Continued Israeli occupation remains the main obstacle to building a democratic system in Palestine. That this is so turns the act of holding democratic elections into a form of peaceful resistance.
Democracy will only be fully realised when the occupation is ended. Israeli assaults, arrests and the placing of restrictions on some presidential candidates’ movements and their favouritism of others underlined this simple truth.
The ruling party must be separated from the PNA and new legislation introduced governing political parties and their finance. Real democracy is impossible without political parties competing on an equal footing. While the law prohibits any candidate or party from exploiting PNA agencies for their own benefit it is no secret that Fatah, given its historical role, has been able to act in the manner of a ruling party, dominating the PLO and now the PNA. And while Fatah has accepted democratic elections its instincts are to cling onto its comparative advantages.
For true democracy to take root Fatah control of the PNA’s civil and security agencies must come to an end. This effectively involves the separation of the PNA and Fatah, and it must take place on three levels.
There must be intellectual separation, by which I mean an acceptance, in principle, that the party gaining the most votes in elections assumes the leadership. Clearly defining the relationship between the winning party and the PNA will in the end serve the interests of all, including Fatah which, if it fares badly at the polls, can then seek to regain lost ground in future elections.
There must, too, be bureaucratic separation. This has the support of many, particularly among the younger generation who feel the weight of PNA corruption and maladministration. Yet it remains difficult to envisage Fatah abandoning the benefits and advantages that accrue from its monopoly of the PNA. Nor should the complexity involved in such a separation be underestimated. It is sufficient to point out that employees of the security forces, most affiliated to Fatah, number 58,000 out of a total of 133,000 state employees, or 44 per cent of the total. Their budget is $938 million annually.
To some such figures represent an insurmountable obstacle in the way of separation. Yet given the costs of maintaining the status quo they are an obstacle many in Fatah agree must be tackled if the party is not to face the kind of election results it saw in Gaza’s municipal elections.
And there must be financial separation, which means an end to any monopoly over PNA resources.
Democracy is not divisible and democratic systems cannot be seen as a form of window dressing designed to make the status quo appear more attractive. Entrenching democratic practice requires a party law and the provision of state funding for parties, this latter a necessary step if they are to be protected from foreign interference. The levels of such funding should be determined by the popular support parties garner in elections.
Many democratic systems determine the level of state funding of parties on the basis of the percentages they win in general elections. This allows citizens to decide through their votes not only the extent of the power wielded by individual parties but also the amount of funds a party receives from taxpayers’ money.
Ensuring the independence of the judiciary from the executive is essential to the functioning of any democracy. Yet despite endless discussions of the matter, and millions being spent in its pursuit, no tangible steps have been taken in this direction. Yet in the absence of an independent judiciary there can be no rule of law and no equality before the law. In its absence there is no authority to supervise the political system or mediate social relations.
There must, too, be a comprehensive reform of the security agencies, one guided by Palestinian interests rather than a response to external, especially Israeli, pressure.
Reform of the security apparatus involves the following measures: their submission to the rule of law and to elected authorities; the questioning of security personnel by the Palestinian Legislative Council; the depoliticisation of the security forces and the banning of senior officials from political or media activity; periodic changes of leadership and an absolute ban of the security forces engaging in election propaganda or interfering to manipulate the results of elections.
A healthy democracy will also require a complete overhaul, along democratic principles, of the PLO.
It is no secret that the PLO is the authority behind the PNA and the Palestinians’ official negotiator. This state of affairs can no longer be squared with the absence of elections to PLO committees, let alone the organisation’s failure since 1998 to convene a national assembly. The current composition of its executive committee is a historical anomaly, with many members representing no one apart from themselves, let alone forces that enjoy considerable popular support. The most significant and effective forces within Palestinian society lack any representation within the PLO.
To ensure that the PLO does not completely dissolve within the PNA requires that it hold democratic elections to its various committees, and that it demarcate boundaries between its own prerogatives and those of the PNA.
During the presidential elections Palestinians increasingly asked why exiled Iraqis could participate in the Iraqi elections while Palestinians abroad were denied such a right. Sincere moves towards allowing Diaspora Palestinians to participate in National Council elections would go a long way towards ending the fragmentation of the Palestinian cause. It would close the gap that developed between the homeland and Diaspora following Oslo and close the door on attempts to eliminate the refugee issue or transform the idea of statehood to one of autonomy without sovereignty. Such a move would also burnish the democratic credentials of a unified Palestinian leadership and refine their strategy and vision, something much needed in these difficult times.
Development of a Palestinian democratic system is bound to see a move away from the present patronage system in which each party and faction is primarily concerned with the interests of its own members, seeking to provide benefits such as missions, jobs, aid and social services on a factional basis. This deepens partisan divisions and encourages factional fanaticism, forfeiting the rights of the majority of the people along the way. We must move towards a system in which each political force represents a certain group and supports policies that benefit them. The influence such parties enjoy should be determined at the ballot box, where they will be held accountable by the electorate for their failure or otherwise to deliver on promises. Only then will we see PNA institutions and municipalities judged on the basis of their ability to provide services to a majority of the people, without discrimination.
Such a transformation would eliminate favouritism, perceived by a majority of Palestinians as the most pervasive form of corruption. Favouritism reigns in employment, in the allocation of promotions, receipt of services, even in obtaining grants to study.
Democratic practice demands that elections are held as scheduled regardless of circumstance. The recent presidential elections at last exposed the dishonesty behind earlier excuses to delay elections on the grounds that the political situation was not conducive to their being held. It is difficult to conceive of a worse situation in which presidential elections could have been held, yet they were relatively successful.
Knowing that incumbents will serve for a period of no more than four or five years is essential if accountability is to be guaranteed and contact with the concerns of specific constituencies maintained.
The same holds true for other institutions, including labour and professional syndicates and chambers of commerce. It would make no sense for regular elections to be held for the presidency, the legislature, and within non-governmental organisations, and exempt labour and professional syndicates from adopting the same course. It is the right and duty of professionals and labourers to demand such elections.
One of the most glaring weaknesses in the presidential elections was the absence of any mechanism to ensure media impartiality. A report by European international observers estimated that official Palestinian television stations allocated 93 per cent of their coverage during elections to the Fatah candidate, with remaining candidates receiving between one and three per cent. Despite the courage of a handful of reporters the situation was hardly better when it came to Arab satellite stations.
Such media bias is one of the weakest points in the Palestinian electoral system and it must be addressed before the next legislative elections.
Finally, there must be guarantees in place that ensure the independence of the Central Elections Committee, a central plank of any effective electoral law. That law should also include a provision encouraging positive discrimination in order to encourage the development of political like. Woman, for instance, should be guaranteed more than the third of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) contained in the second reading of the law passed by the PLC. Ways must be formulated to encourage political participation among the young, and the civil register — its use, imposed on the Central Elections Committee, Palestinian led to numerous violations and repeat votes — must be abandoned.
European observers’ rightly remarked that the PLC’s insistence that the civil register be used alongside lists of registered voters placed a huge burden on the electoral process. The civil register, an inheritance from the occupying authority, is not credible and its use had negative implications on the administration of the ballot.
What made matter worse, in the words of the international observers, was that the ‘decision of the Central Elections Committee to change the electoral procedures during the final hours was taken after consistent and serious pressure from the PNA that resulted in some election officials submitting their resignations. Such pressure is unacceptable in any democratic election and the Palestinian leadership must work hard to guarantee that such incidents, which harm the quality and credibility of the electoral process, will not be repeated.’
The road to democracy is not an easy one and forging ahead will be possible only if democratic forces strive with all the power at their disposal to negotiate the obstacles placed in the path of democratic development.
The struggle will be worth it for when democratic structures provide Palestinian citizens with rights, security, and a future, then they will have gone a long way towards rescuing the national cause from the conspiracies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who seeks continually to turn the notion of an autonomous state into an Apartheid system.