Palestine held legislative elections on January 25, 2006. Commentators immediately noted the victory of Change and Reform, the political wing of Hamas, a militant organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Some mistook Hamas' parliamentary majority for a manifestation of corresponding public sentiment. But that majority was the product of a winner-take-all election system. While Hamas proved more apt at "gaming" the system, Fatah candidates fell victim to "spoiler effects" from, one, their own candidates and, two, independents and third-party candidates. Under proportional voting, neither Hamas or Fatah, the leading moderate party, would have had a majority. Hamas would have had to form a coalition with moderate groups.
Read FairVote's report.
The Palestinian electoral system
There are 132 seats in Palestine's parliament. 66 are elected proportionally on a national party list system. The other 66 are elected in nine, multi-member districts on a plurality basis.
Over-representation of Hamas in district seats
The party list vote: Hamas received 45% of votes and 46% of seats (30 of 66). Fatah received 42% of votes and 41% of seats (27 of 66).
The district vote: On the district plurality side, Hamas got 41% of votes nationwide, winning 68% of seats (45 of 66). Fatah won 36% of the nationwide vote but only 26% of the seats (17 of 45). For these seats alone, Hamas is overrepresented by 27%, and Fatah is underrepresented by 10%.
The resulting parliament: 75 of 132 seats for Hamas, and a majority for that party, despite having won only 41-45% of votes nationwide. Fatah holds only a third of seats despite having won 36-41% support.
In five of the districts, Fatah overnominated relative to the number of open seats and/or its election odds, thereby spoiling its own candidacies. In each of these cases, Hamas, showing evidence of better organization, never ran more candidates than Fatah - and frequently ran fewer. In two other districts, third parties and independents may have spoiled Fatah’s otherwise good chances.
FairVote's analysis projects what parliament would have looked like under two alternative electoral schemes. Generally speaking, the less proportional the system, the more seats go to Hamas. Under a fully proportional system, neither party would have had a majority.
If Fatah, third parties and independents are closer in policy preferences to each other than to Hamas, the losing program had more support among voters than did the winning party. Experts on regional politics, placing all candidates into one of two categories, could confirm this point.
All this underscores three lessons:
(1) that election results are not necessarily a proxy for public opinion;
(2) that electoral systems matter;
(3) that winner-take-all systems can let the minority rule the majority, forcing it to cope with whatever rains down from the foreign policy environment (and a potentially soured relationship with Israel more specifically).
History of proportional voting in PalestineParliamentary elections in Palestine, which were originally set for July 17th, have been delayed as groups have called for changes to the way in which seats are apportioned. The most contentious issue about the electoral system has been the debate between district voting and proportional representation. Many civil society groups and parties have argued that at least half of the deputies be elected through proportional representation, while President Abbas even argued that all seats be elected through proportional representation.
In March 2005, Palestinian parties came to an agreement that half of the seats could be apportioned by proportional voting and the other half by constituencies. Later, however, the legislature approved a reform that would have allowed only 1/3 of the deputies to be elected through proportional voting. Abbas vetoed the law because he wanted at least half of the legislature to be elected through proportional voting.
On Saturday, June 18, in response to diverse pressures, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) finally approved by a vote of 43-14 the bill with the amendment that requires seats to be apportioned evenly according to the two electoral systems. According to the new law and amendments, 66 deputies will be elected in local districts and 66 will be elected through proportional voting, in which voters will cast their ballots for different parties.
Using proportional voting for the election of half of the seats is an important development in the Palestinian electoral system. It will help ensure fairer representation of the various parties and of all Palestinians.
The new law will become effective three months after it is ratified by the president and published in the official Gazette. The Palestinian Central Elections Commission (CEC) has said that it will take an additional two months after the law is ratified to arrange for parliamentary elections. Thus, elections will not be held for at least 5 more months.
The only previous Palestinian legislative elections were held on January 20, 1996. The parliamentary elections are much anticipated as the legal term of the current PLC expired on May 4, 1999, when the interim period under the Oslo Accords ended. The new elections will restore a sense of legitimacy to the PLC, while also ensuring fair representation.
Just as the free and fair election of the Palestinian president was an important step toward democracy, the election of half of the representatives to the PLC through proportional voting is also an important step forward for Palestinian democracy.
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said the United States “applauds” Abbas’s commitment to political reform and democratic society.