By Steven Hill
Published February 8th 2006 in Hartford Courant
Much hand-wringing has resulted since Hamas, a group on the Bush administration's terrorist list, won a sizable majority of legislative seats in the recent Palestinian elections. But the planners of the elections could learn a thing or two from the recent Iraqi elections.
The problem is that the electoral system used for the Palestinian elections gave grossly unrepresentative results in which Hamas won nearly a super-majority of seats even though they did not win even a majority of votes. If the Palestinians had employed the electoral methods used in Iraq and in many other democracies around the world, the story would have turned out very differently.
The Palestinian elections used a combination of a U.S.-style winner-take-all electoral system and a more European-style proportional voting system. Palestinian voters had a vote for their favorite political party (the proportional vote) and votes for individual candidates (the winner-take-all vote). Unfortunately, the winner-take-all part broke down, and Hamas won way more seats than their votes should have given them.
Look at the actual results. In the proportional vote, which is a national vote and therefore the best measure of the overall support for each political party, Hamas won about 45 percent of the popular vote and about the same percentage of seats - 30 of 66, no majority there. The incumbent party, Fatah, won 41 percent of the popular vote and 27 of 66 seats, only three behind Hamas.
So the election was actually quite close, and if those were the only election results, Hamas would not have won a majority of seats and would have needed to form a coalition with other political parties. A likely possibility is Hamas would have formed a grand coalition with Fatah, which would have provided a stable transition.
Instead, the winner-take-all seats, which are allocated by local districts, completely threw the election to Hamas. Though Hamas and Fatah had nearly equal support nationwide, Hamas won 46 of 66 seats, 70 percent in the winner-take-all districts and Fatah won only 16 district seats.
Overall, Hamas won a stunning 58 percent of legislative seats even though their national support was only around 45 percent. It was a tragic breakdown of the electoral system. Instead of talking about negotiating a coalition government for the Palestinians, the talk now is about picking through the shards, figuring how to salvage the road map to peace.
It didn't have to be this way. The designers of democracy in Palestine had only to look to neighboring Iraq to figure out how to design a better method that would have produced more representative results and provided more stability for the peace process.
On Dec. 15, Iraq held its second election, with Iraq's 18 provinces electing 275 members of parliament using a proportional voting method. Each political party was awarded legislative seats in direct proportion to their vote in each province. Because of Iraq's proportional method, when the dominant Shiite party failed to win a majority of the popular vote, they also failed to win a majority of legislative seats. Surely if they had used a winner-take-all method like that used in the Palestinian elections, the Shiite bloc would have won a strong legislative majority even though they lacked a popular majority.
Instead, now the Shiites in Iraq are forced to negotiate with their legislative partners, including the Sunnis and Kurds, producing a government that preserves the fragile consensus in Iraq.
It is really a shame that for all the billions of dollars in aid poured into Palestine, no one had the sense to make sure the elections were conducted using a method like that used in Iraq that would guarantee representative results.
Various political analysts are saying Hamas' victory is a disaster built on short-sighted policies by the Palestinians, Israel and the United States. The truth is a bit more mundane. Hamas' overwhelming victory is the result of a poorly designed electoral system. Unfortunately, when you are trying to jump-start democracy, the devil is in the details.
Steven Hill is director of New America Foundation's political reform program (www.NewAmerica.net/politicalreform) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics."