The Palestinian Elections: Moving Toward Democracy or One-Party Rule?

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VOL. 25

1995/96

No. 3
P. 5
Articles
The Palestinian Elections: Moving Toward Democracy or One-Party Rule?
FULL TEXT

 

No sooner had the results of the Palestinian elections been announced than Shimon Peres declared an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital to be a dream. The Israeli prime minister's statements, along with near daily warnings that if the Palestinian covenant was not modified the peace process would come to a halt, underscored the paradox of the Palestinian elections: While elections generally indicate a democratic process, in the Palestinian case a democratic right has been permitted in order to legitimize a political process that could well lead to the perpetuation of Israeli control.

The elections also threw into relief the delicacy of Arafat's position. While from the Israeli standpoint he now has the mandate he needs to reach a compromise on the final status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, at the same time his legitimacy continues to hinge on his ability to symbolize the national aspirations of his people-in other words, on his ability to fulfill his pledges to end the Israeli occupation and bring about independence. How he will manage to keep his popular support while accommodating Israel will be the real test for him and the leadership.

The phenomenally high turnout of 79.7 percent of the 1,035,000 registered voters in the 20 January elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip showed a popular yearning for participation in the political process that will determine the Palestinians' future. Arafat's own victory of 87 percent, as well as Fatah's sweep of the Palestinian Legislative Council-officially Fatah won fifty of the eighty-eight seats, but in fact it controls at least seventy when Fatah members who ran as independents are included-also show, in theory at least, that both Arafat and his party enjoy broad support. Given the absence of serious opposition, Fatah would undoubtedly have dominated the council even if the vote had been characterized by the most scrupulous fairness. Still, the extent of the polling violations re-enforced concerns in some quarters that Arafat is seeking to establish a one-party rule.

Forming the Electoral Lists

In the period leading up to the elections, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA) came in for considerable criticism for tolerating abuses of power by the security agencies and interfering with the press in a way not conducive to the free and open atmosphere required by elections. Even the international observers who had been called in to monitor the entire electoral process, and who overall gave the elections a clean bill, expressed concern. In their final statement issued on 21 January, the day after elections, the European Union Electoral Unit noted "certain measures which have inhibited the rights and freedoms normally associated with elections campaigning" and went on to "hope that the newly elected president of the Palestinian Authority and the members of the council will have the confidence to dispense with a tendency to intimidate the media which has been noted during the elections process."

But if the security excesses and press policies indicated inclinations to control, some of Arafat's other actions showed that he also sought at least token representation of other political factions under Fatah's lead. Thus, in the run-up to the elections, Arafat engaged in talks both with Hamas and the secular political groups in an effort to get them to join the Fatah lists instead of forging coalitions based on political platforms. According to senior Fatah officials, Arafat's aim was to show the Israelis that he could contain and represent all trends, including Hamas.

With regard to the secular groups supporting the elections, Arafat's efforts succeeded only to a very limited extent. Two members of the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA), Zahira Kamal and Azmi Shuweibi, joined the Fatah slates in Jerusalem and Ramallah respectively after FIDA gave its members the choice between running on a separate slate representing the movement or joining the Fatah slates. The other three FIDA candidates, including cofounder Saleh Ra'afat and Sami Kilani, ran on their own list. The Palestine People's Party (PPP) declined Arafat's offer and ran on its own slate in the West Bank, while in the Gaza Strip its members ran in a coalition slate headed by Haydar 'Abd al-Shafi. In the end, Arafat managed to get only five non- Fatah members to join the Fatah lists: besides the two FIDA candidates, he got three dissident members of other groups: Hassan Asfour, a former member of the PPP in Khan Yunis; FayezJaber, a former member of the PFLP in Ramallah; and Imad al-Faluji, who had been expelled from Hamas a month before the elections for becoming Arafat's liaison officer between the PA and the Islamic movements.

In his dealings with Hamas, Arafat pursued a two-pronged policy aimed at coopting and weakening it: Even while following a systematic crackdown, including detaining Hamas activists and closing the movement's Watan newspaper, he was holding official talks with the leaders. His eagerness for Hamas to participate in the elections, if not to join the Fatah slate, was such that he extended the candidate registration period beyond that stipulated in the election law to give Hamas more time to cut through the debate within the movement, where the leadership in the territories appeared to favor participation and the leadership in Amman and Damascus was adamant about a boycott. One of the reasons Arafat increased the number of seats to eighty-eight was to encourage Hamas leaders to join the elections in the areas where the seats were added. Indeed, several Hamas figures almost did run-Shaykh Jamil Hamami in Jerusalem and Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Hindi, and Said al- Namruti in Gaza-but they changed their minds after nominating themselves, thereby averting a serious blow to Hamas unity.

The secular PFLP and DFLP, once the major opposition bloc within the PLO before losing ground to Hamas in recent years, also decided to boycott the elections despite protests by local leaders. Riyadh al-Malki of the PFLP and Muhammad Jaddallah of the DFLP both sent their Damascus-based leaderships strong recommendations to take part in the elections or risk being marginalized. In December, Jaddallah and an- other young DFLP leader, Nihad Abu Gosh, went to Damascus in a vain attempt to argue for the group's participation. Malki actually defied PFLP instructions by registering as a candidate, but pulled out at the last minute under pressure from his party.

In an attempt to provide a counterbalance to Fatah, FIDA, the PPP, and a number of independents, asked Haydar 'Abd al-Shafi to head a territories-wide coalition slate. But when a series of meetings in late November and early December in Ramallah, each attended by at least fifty candidates, failed to produce an alliance or joint plan of action, 'Abd al-Shafi formed a coalition list confined to the Gaza Strip. The resulting seven-member slate included independent leftists (such as influential PFLP leader Ghazi Abu Jhiyab) who shared 'Abd al-Shafi's views on the need to create an opposition from within the system rather than boycotting the Palestinian political process, as most of the leftist groups had chosen to do. The fact that 'Abd al-Shafi himself was the only winner on his National Democratic Coalition list indicates that the new movement had not yet succeeded in developing a distinct identity or constituency.

In the absence of a serious rival, the elections were transformed largely into a competition among Fatah activists and leaders seeking to position themselves in the emerging Palestinian political system. Intra- Fatah frictions came to the fore, including between the local leadership that rose to prominence during the intifada and the more traditional local leadership groomed by Arafat during his Tunis years, and between the leadership inside as a whole and the leadership from the outside that returned with Arafat. Indeed, Fatah's dominance of the electoral campaign was such as to lead Malki to call the elections "the Fatah primaries." His description came very close to reality.

Arafat wanted all Fatah wings to be represented so long as they owed him allegiance. But the selection process, largely influenced by Arafat's choices and moods, created considerable disgruntlement within the movement. Arafat assigned Fatah Central Committee members to supervise the Fatah selections in various districts provided they were not candidates there. For example, Ahmad Qurai', who ran in Jerusalem, supervised selections in Bethlehem, while Tayib 'Abd al-Rahim, who ran in Tulkarm, was in charge of the selections in Ramallah. The selections were mainly based on consultations with local leaders and Arafat. In some areas, the local Fatah organization held a vote to select its candidates. In Tulkarm, for example, ten candidates were elected by 1,300 cadres in a first round. These ten then elected five candidates, with pressures reportedly being brought to bear by Arafat and security in favor of certain candidates.

In a number of districts, the selection criterion was clearly not popularity. Fatah leaders, whether local or from the outside, known for being critical of Arafat or having a strong power base within the movement, were often excluded from the official lists. Good examples are intifada leaders Fares Qadura and 'Abd al- Fattah Hamayel in Ramallah and Salah Ta'amari, representative of a generation of Fatah fighters in exile, in Bethlehem. Hamayel and Qadura had already shown their strength in the 1994 regional Fatah elections in Ramallah. Hamayel, who was critical of Arafat's political appointments within the movement, came in first. His victory was seen as upsetting the purpose of elections conceived to pave the way for Fatah's transformation into the ruling party. Arafat then cancelled elections in other areas on the grounds that they could splinter Fatah.

In Bethlehem, consultations resulted in the decision to drop two Fatah veterans, Salah Ta'amari and Daud al-Zir, from the official list in order to include two Christians. According to several senior Fatah officials, the real reason for the change was that Arafat did not want to endorse Ta'amari, who had made a name for himself in Lebanon through supervising the training of young fighters and through his resistance to the invading Israeli army in 1982. More to the point, Ta'amari had developed since returning to Bethlehem in 1994 a power base well beyond his own mainly Bedouin Ta'amreh clan and had asserted some independence from Arafat by outspoken criticism of certain PA policies.

When the official Fatah lists were announced, many cadres rebelled and announced that they were running on their own. Some felt that they were excluded in favor of less deserving candidates for political reasons; others resented what they saw as Arafat's tradition of rewarding "defectors" from other parties at the expense of Fatah rank- and-file. But not all those who defied the Fatah leadership orders not to run independently were rebellious or critical: some merely saw the elections as a crucial opportunity to participate in a new era of Palestinian politics. Others undoubtedly saw the elections as a vehicle to political and social status and even gain.

In December, the Fatah Central Committee issued a statement asking "independent Fatah" candidates to withdraw. Those who agreed were promised and received posts in the PA (Ahmed Ghneim from the Jerusalem area, for example, pulled out and was appointed a director at one of the ministries a few days after the elections). Most of the excluded candidates did not withdraw, however, and Arafat did not take any further measures to dissuade them. In the last analysis, he undoubtedly calculated that whoever won, whether inside or outside the official list, would still be within the Fatah camp. Nonetheless, independent Fatah candidates did not receive the $10,000 from the party for their campaigns, as did the official candidates.

The Electoral Process

The Palestinian election law divided the autonomous areas into sixteen electoral districts-eleven in the West Bank and five in the Gaza Strip. The eighty-eight seats were divided between fifty-one allocated for the West Bank and thirty-seven for the Gaza Strip.

The law, more or less fashioned after the Jordanian election law before King Hussein amended it in 1993, allowed voters to choose candidates for all the seats allocated to their districts. Like the Jordanian law, the Palestinian law was mainly criticized for allowing local and clan allegiances to prevail over national agendas: Voting by district rather than on a country or area wide basis was felt automatically to favor candidates with strong clan base or the local government connections that would enable them to deliver government services. Others objected to the fact that, again as in the Jordanian law, the number of seats allocated in some districts was not proportional to the population. Arafat responded to this criticism long after the electoral law was passed and after the registration of candidates was already underway by increasing the number of seats from eighty-three to eighty-eight, adding one seat each for Jerusalem, Northern Gaza, and Hebron and two seats for Gaza City.

There was also criticism, mainly from opposition groups such as the PFLP and DFLP, that the system of popular vote (whereby the candidates with the most votes win) failed to ensure the representation of smaller parties. But this aspect of the new system was supported by other groups (such as the PPP) precisely because in the last analysis it entailed the end of the quota system that had long characterized PLO politics and appointments to PLO bodies.

While the old quota system was thus dismantled, six seats were allocated to the 70,000 Christians of the occupied territories. This provision was criticized by some candidates, particularly Haydar 'Abd al- Shafi and Hanan Ashrawi, as another kind of quota system. But Arafat insisted on the Christian quota to ensure a representation, in his view, proportional to their influence in Palestinian life. For this reason, he included at least one Christian candidate on the Fatah lists for each district with a sizable Christian community (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Gaza). In this, his goal seemed to be not only to ensure the loyalty of Palestinian Christians but also to allay their fears of being dominated by the Muslim majority, particularly in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem.

Under the Palestinian election law (like its Jordanian model), Palestinians irrespective of their religion vote for Muslim and Christian candidates, but in a district where there is a Christian quota of, say, one seat, the Christian candidate with the most votes wins even if he or she receives fewer votes than some Muslim candidates. For example, in the Jerusalem district, Emile Jarjoui won one of the two Christian seats (Hanan Ashrawi won the other) even though he had far fewer votes than Zahira Kamal. Indeed, with the exception of Hanan Ashrawi in Jerusalem and Faraj al-Saraf in Gaza, both of whom were elected solely on the basis of the votes received, the other Christian candidates could not have won without the quota system. Ashrawi, who refused to campaign as a Christian in any way, came in second in the overall voting in Jerusalem with 17,597 votes-only 400 votes behind Ahmad Qurai', who was backed by the Fatah machine. Dr. Saraf came in twelfth in the voting in Gaza City, thereby capturing the twelfth and final seat for that district by popular vote.

The Samaritan sect in Nablus was allocated one seat under the same regulations applied to the Christians. But unlike the Christian candidates, who campaigned for both Muslim and Christian votes, the Samaritan candidate, Saloum al-Samirai, did not venture beyond his community. With 2,430 votes, Samirai came in last place but won a seat anyway because of the quota; the Muslim winner with the least votes had received 17,445.

To be eligible to vote, Palestinians were required to have a permanent residence in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Although this clause was intended to prevent diaspora Palestinians from voting, special arrangements between Fatah and the Israelis allowed scores of Fatah members to cross from Amman to the West Bank days before the elections to vote-which meant that they also gained the right of residence.

The entire electoral process was to be overseen by a nine-member Central Election Committee (CEC) formed on 21 December 1995, a full week after the candidate registration process had begun. The Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen's Rights (ICCR), the organization that had been headed by Hanan Ashrawi from its creation in late 1993 until her replacement in August 1995 by the Gaza physician Dr. lyad al-Sarraj, criticized the commission for a number of reasons. Among these was the fact that it was headed not by a neutral figure as called for under the electoral law but by Fatah Central Committee member Mahmud Abbas. It might be noted that Sarraj was detained last December for nine hours by Palestinian security for demanding an explanation for reported torture of PA detainees.

The CEC worked through a network of electoral district offices which in turn set up committees for each polling station to supervise the electoral process. The ICCR among other organizations objected to the se- lection by the district offices of the polling station personnel on the grounds that it did not guarantee objectivity and independence. Moreover, while the polling station members were to be provided with official cards, many of these were not issued, making it possible for someone else to stand in for committee members at the last minute.

On election day, there was some confusion caused by the fact that many people did not find their names on the voter lists at the polling stations even though they had registered. Under Oslo II, the PA was to submit the initial registration lists to the Israelis for approval (since it was the Israelis who were to decide who was eligible to vote) six weeks before election day, with the final lists to be submitted for Israeli approval three days before elections. In response to complaints about missing names, the official radio appealed repeatedly to those who could not find their names to contact the District Election Office or even the CEC in Ramallah to rectify the situation. Local elections officers and observers could do little to help, and it remains unclear how many names had disappeared from the lists and why.

There were also complaints about the chaotic situations at some pol- ling stations, where representatives of all the candidates were permitted to be present and where security personnel were to remain outside. In some cases, Fatah candidates had chosen as their representatives undercover Preventive Security agents, entailing a highly irregular situation inside the polling stations.

The elections law stipulated secret ballots and required that the protocols containing the results be signed by authorized observers and representatives of the candidates before being handed over with the sealed boxes to the district election offices. But after the elections, many candidates said that a large number of the protocols had arrived unsigned. Furthermore, a number of balloting boxes disappeared in Ramallah and Hebron. Some were found 24 hours later or even after the counting was over. The case of the disappearing boxes prompted speculations of deliberate fraud.

Despite the many complaints, the only area where a re-vote was held was in Jabalya, Northern Gaza. Critics of Arafat among the Fatah rank- and-file maintained that a re-vote had been allowed in Jabalya to ensure the victory of Imad al-Faluji who did not win the first time around but did in the re-vote, coming in last place among the winners. There was also a recount of the votes in two ballot boxes in Janin, as a result of which the declared winner, Fatah member Ahmad Abu Rab, lost. In Gaza City the declared winner, Said al-Mis'al, was dropped as a result of a decision by the CEC in favor of Rawiya Shawa, a well-known columnist and daughter of the former mayor of Gaza.

International Observers

More than 1,500 international observers including official and non- government organizations took part in the supervision of the first Palestinian elections. The official delegations included 650 observers rep- resenting the European Union Electoral Unit, Australia, Canada, China, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Korea, Malta, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, the Organization of African Unity, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the nonaligned movement.

Official and nonofficial international observers supervised the elections process from the time registration began on 12 November 1995 until 21 January 1996, the day after the voting. Initially, the European Union Electoral Unit expressed dissatisfaction with the PA's delays in forming elections committees and particularly with Arafat's extending the candidate registration and addition of five more council seats. The Palestinian IRRC cited these changes as a violation of the election law. But in their final statement issued on 21 January, the official observers expressed "understanding for the efforts made by the Palestinian authority to consult widely on the election law and to bring some Islamic opposition elements into the elections process, while noting that the priority given to this laudable effort resulted in delays which caused some confusion for parties, candidates and voters."


Among the most prominent nonofficial observers was former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who in the two days prior to the elections met with candidates and human rights organizations and toured a large number of polling stations in the presence of young Palestinian volunteers. The Palestinian IRRC presented a copy of its memo of the violations of the electoral law to President Carter on the eve of the elections.

International observers, official and unofficial, were present in many polling stations when the voting began at 7 A.M. on 20 January. But as the day progressed, their presence was most noticeable in the center of Jerusalem and Hebron still under total Israel control. International observers could not do much when Israeli soldiers turned back voters or lined them up against the wall near al-Tur, one the five balloting centers in Jerusalem.

Near the main post office in Salah al-Din Street in Jerusalem, soldiers cordoned off the street and checked the identity cards of journalists, observers, and voters. International observers, mostly from the American branch of the Peace Now movement, sought to allay Palestinian fears that the voters' names were being taken down by the Israelis. At one point, Palestinians standing across the street from the polling station said they were reluctant to enter because they had heard the Israeli army was filming voters. These measures were duly noted in the final statement of the European Union Electoral Unit, which, however, added that while the measures deterred voters, they were "successful in preventing security incidents."

Reporters, including this one, noted that international observers were absent in many of the polling stations outside the city of Jerusalem. In a number of areas-including polling centers in the town of Hebron, al-Saeer near Hebron, Jalazon camp, and Qalandiya camp-polling station staff said that observers passed through only very briefly, sometimes not more than ten minutes.

Young Palestinians who escorted the international observers talked about violations that took place under their very noses but which escaped detection because of ignorance of the language. Examples included the presence of undercover security personnel inside the polling stations and interventions by committee officials to influence the voting, especially of illiterate people.

In contrast to the international observers, who generally applauded the conduct of the vote, the local observers held a press conference on 25 January calling for a re-vote throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The local observers, who included representatives of local NGOs and human rights organizations, cited the missing ballot boxes, the exclusion from the vote counting of their own representatives as well as those of the candidates, and interference in the overall process by Palestinian security. In the debate that followed the elections, some Palestinians openly accused the international observers of deliberate bias to ensure the success of the Israeli-Palestinian treaty. International observers with whom this reporter talked said that they did not see any violations beyond what is normally witnessed in areas undergoing transition.

The PA's expenses on the international elections observers has exceeded $15 million.

Elections Results

As already noted, the first Palestinian Council ever elected is overwhelmingly dominated by Fatah and its supporters. Out of 88 deputies, 71 (including Imad al-Faluji) are affiliated with Fatah in one way or the other-either full-fledged Fatah members, supporters of Fatah, or backed by Fatah in the elections.

Yet the fact that Fatah affiliates dominate the council does not mean that Arafat will not face opposition. Outspoken critics of the Oslo agreement or of some of Arafat's policies led the polls in key districts, including Haydar 'Abd al-Shafi (in Gaza City), Abd al-Jawad Saleh (in Ramallah), Hanan Ashrawi (in Jerusalem), Abbas Zaki (in Hebron), and Salah Ta'amari (in Bethlehem). Independents close to Hamas won seats in Gaza City, Rafah, and North Gaza, while two leftists (Ra'afat al-Najar and Kamal Sharafi) known for their support of the PFLP won seats in Khan Yunis and North Gaza. (Imad al-Faluji is no longer perceived as representing the Hamas trend, since he ran on the Fatah list and Fatah funded his campaign.)

If anything, the elections can be interpreted as showing that the local Fatah leadership appointed by Arafat lacks credibility. The secretary general of Fatah's higher committee in the Gaza Strip, Zakaria al-Agha, lost, while his counterpart in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, barely made it, coming in last among the winners in Ramallah. Yet in both cases, there were strong indications of Fatah attempts to ensure their victory. In Gaza, according to senior Fatah and PLO officials, relatives of other candidates discovered Agha's supporters attempting to replace the ballot boxes with forged ones. The incident was about to trigger armed clashes when Arafat interfered and asked Agha to desist. In the Ramallah district, Mustafa Barghouti of the PPP, who placed after Marwan Barghouti in the voting, challenged the results by presenting evidence of violations in many polling stations. Even the Palestinian radio had initially declared Mustafa Barghouti a winner but less than a half hour later amended the victors' list to include Marwan's name instead. Moreover, while Marwan Barghouti barely squeaked in, the two activists who had been excluded from the official list, Fares Qadura and 'Abd al-Fattah Hamayel, took second and third place. In Bethlehem, Salah Ta'amari came in first while none of the members of Fatah's official list won.

In all, some thirty Fatah candidates from the official lists, most of them local activists, lost while twenty of the Fatah activists who ran independently won. The results provoked calls for an immediate re-organization of Fatah and appeared to show that the policy of appointments of local leaders had backfired.

One interesting aspect of the Fatah results was that while many local Fatah activists lost, the traditional leadership returning from exile all won without exception, seeming to counter the perception of strong popular resentment concerning the bureaucracy and corruption of the "imported leadership." One possible explanation for their success could be that the officials returning with Arafat relied heavily, perhaps even more than most Fatah candidates, on the PA's structures, including security, in their campaigns. In some areas they were called the "Authority's candidates," a description denoting some resentment but also implying connections and the ability to deliver services. Given that people's daily lives are still under Israeli control and that the PA virtually acts as agent between the constituencies and the Israeli authorities, this represents an important advantage. But a number of people, including Fatah officials and even candidates who won, also suggest that the violations cited by candidates and observers ensured the victory of the exile leadership. In Hebron, for example, several eyewitness reports suggested that representatives of some candidates were kept out of the vote counting by the Palestinian security while officially backed candidates were allowed free movement.

There is no doubt that the timing of the redeployment of Israeli troops from West Bank towns and populated areas less than a month before the elections boosted Arafat by fanning Palestinian hopes of an Israeli withdrawal. But given the structure of the negotiations and the three-year duration mandated for the final status talks scheduled to begin in May, Arafat will have no further substantial achievement to deliver for a long time except for an Israeli release of the remaining Palestinians prisoners who were supposed to have been freed by the time of Israeli redeployment. Meanwhile, Israeli confiscation of Arab lands continues.

In theory at least, the elections, as Arafat and his leadership saw them, were to lay the groundwork for a separate entity that would eventually be independent of Israeli control. The question remains as to whether the elections will be able to curb Arafat's inclination to concentrate power and whether he will be willing to allow for wider participation, especially when the final status negotiations begin. In this regard, the Palestinians poured to the polling stations precisely to gain a voice, which means that while awaiting the outcome of the final status negotiations, the issues of democracy, official corruption, and living conditions will gradually acquire greater prominence and could be the crucial issues in redefining the relationship between the leadership and its constituency. Building democratic institutions despite the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements could allow the Palestinians to create their own facts on the ground and lay the foundation of a Palestinian state.

 

Lamis Andoni is an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs who writes for the Christian Science Monitor.

 

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