The Palestinian election law and the PLC elections

Published June 10th 2005 in Israel Hasbara Committee News
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has postponed indefinitely the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Committee that were due to be held on 17 July 2005. [1] Senior Fatah officials have said they expect elections to be held some time between November and January. [2] Explaining his presidential decree, Abbas said the elections would be delayed until new legislation was passed that would reform the way in which the PLC is elected. The decision, which had been widely predicted, drew immediate criticism from Hamas, the main opposition to Fatah, and from the other Palestinian factions.

With commentators suggesting that the real reason behind the delay has more to do with the challenge posed to Abbas’ Fatah party by Hamas, and the disarray within Fatah following the death of Yasser Arafat, what is the significance of the disagreement on voting systems? How does Abbas intend to resolve this impasse? And with the international community and Israel demanding further democratic reforms on one hand, and the Islamic challenge to Fatah growing on the other, how much time does he have?

The Palestinian Legislative Committee is the legislative body of the Palestinian Authority, with responsibility for governing the life of Palestinians in the areas under PA control. They are also ex officio members of the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council, which represents both those living in the Palestinian areas, and the Palestinian Diaspora.

In mid-May, the PLC concluded its debates on amendments to the 1995 Palestinian Election Law, proposing that the current legislative voting process be replaced by a new system. The amendment called for the election of 132 members to the PLC, up from the current 88, of whom two-thirds would be elected under the old system of multi-seat constituencies, and the rest from a national list for each of the parties. [3] This differed from the proposal brought to the PLC by its legal committee, under which 124 seats would be elected, half under each electoral system. [4] Issuing a presidential decree that rejected the proposal, Mahmoud Abbas said he was determined that at least half the candidates should be chosen on the party list system. [5]

The elections to the PLC would be the first since 1996 in which 88 representatives were elected to 16 multi-seat electoral districts - 11 in the West Bank and five in Gaza. In the current PLC, Fatah has a commanding majority, holding 49 of the 88 seats itself and supported by 15 Fatah-affiliated independents. Of those not directly connected with Fatah, there are 17 non-affiliated independents, four independents affiliated with Islamist movements and three representing Leftist factions. Seven of the PLC’s seats are reserved for religious minorities - six for Christians and one for Samaritans living in Nablus. [6]

Mahmoud Abbas’ insistence on moving from a constituency-based system, in which voters elect a representative for their local area, to one in which votes are cast for national lists and representation is allocated according to the proportion of the vote gained, may appear to be of interest to only the most committed pundits. However, the importance of this issue goes beyond the PLC vote.

Abbas currently faces two challenges to his leadership - one external to his party and one internal. The first comes from the Islamist movements, Hamas in particular. Having boycotted the 1996 elections to the PLC as part of its rejection of the Oslo accords and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a whole, Hamas has now chosen to enter the electoral ring. Its absence from national politics over the last decade has helped Hamas avoid the accusations of corruption that have been leveled at Fatah. In recent polls, two-thirds of Palestinians said that there was corruption in the PA, and the same number said they were not satisfied with the PA’s financial management. [7] In the first two rounds of municipal elections held earlier in the year, Hamas took some 35% of the poll. Whilst not enough to challenge Fatah for national leadership, it is enough to take control of around 17 municipalities across the Palestinian territories, causing serious concern amongst Fatah leaders.

The decision to engage in the electoral process is indicative of a wider Hamas strategy to challenge Fatah’s - as yet unrivalled - dominance of the Palestinian national movement. Following discussions between Palestinian factions in Cairo in March 2005, Hamas appeared to inch closer to joining the Palestinian Liberation Organization, noting that it was the ‘sole legitimate’ representative of the Palestinian people. [8] Such a move would bring Hamas into the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement.

Despite its relative inexperience in national electoral politics, Hamas has demonstrated that it is serious. Following claims that the results in the Gaza constituencies of Rafah, Beit Lahiya and the Bureij refugee camp - won by Hamas - were tainted with irregularities and voter fraud, re-votes were scheduled. However, with Hamas calling on its supporters to boycott the re-run, the Palestinian election commission was obliged to postpone the vote. [9]

The second challenge facing Mahmoud Abbas is within Fatah itself. Abbas is keen to oversee a gradual process of handing over power from the ‘old guard’ of leaders associated with Yasser Arafat - of which he is a leading member - to the younger leaders of the party. He is also keen to consolidate Fatah’s position by bringing in a number of the smaller Leftist factions and independents to present a united front to the growing popularity of the Islamic parties.

His chosen strategy of moving from locally-based elections to a party list system is aimed at confronting both of these challenges. The electoral victories gained by Hamas in the municipal elections would not have been so dramatic under a party list system. In fact, the total votes for Fatah and Hamas candidates were generally very close. [10] A national list system would also allow Abbas to place the young leaders from the Fatah Central Committee in high positions, leaving the relatively unknown current PLC members further down the list. Such a move would also discourage small parties from running if the threshold for representation was 5%, as has been proposed.

Although the PLC elections appear to have been delayed to allow Abbas to ensure that the election law is suitably modified, there are still a number of benefits to holding the elections sooner rather than later. Elections are a prerequisite of his strategy of co-opting Hamas into the Palestinian political process. With a newly elected PLC and a stable government in place, Abbas may feel more confident in facing the ‘day after’ Israeli disengagement from Gaza, scheduled to commence in mid-August. Although unlikely, there is still a possibility that elections to the PLC will take place this summer.

[1] “Elections Postponed until Further Notice,” Al-Quds, 5 June 2005
[2] Arnon Regular, “Abbas Postpones Elections to the PLC,” Ha’aretz, 5 May 2005
[3] Samar Assad, “Palestinian Legislative Elections: The Catalyst for Political Reform,” Jerusalem Media and Communications Center
[4] Mohammad Yaghi, “Debating the Palestinian Election Law,” PeaceWatch 502, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 17 May 2005
[5] Khaled Abu Toameh, “PA Legislators Weigh Resigning over Delay of PA Election,” Jerusalem Post, 6 June 2005
[6] Samar Assad, “Palestinian Legislative Elections: The Catalyst for Political Reform,” Jerusalem Media and Communications Center