Palestinians may be establishing another Mideast democracy

By Ziad Abu-Amer
Published February 26th 2005 in Daily Star Regional

By adopting free and democratic elections at the presidential, legislative and local levels, Palestinians may be laying down the foundation of another working democracy in the Middle East. In the Jan. 9 presidential election, none of the seven candidates, including Mahmoud Abbas, took victory for granted. This was evident in the hard campaigning by Fatah and Abbas, and also in the anxiety inside Fatah regarding the outcome. Palestinian state television gave candidates equal air time to present their programs. Abbas won the elections with only 62 percent of the vote. The new president's swearing-in ceremony was delayed for a few days by a court ruling pending charges regarding election violations. Such signs of democracy carry great symbolic and practical significance in the Palestinian setting.

In addition to the presidential election, the first two rounds of the municipal elections - on Dec. 23 in 26 West Bank municipalities and on Jan. 27 in 10 Gaza municipalities - reflected the pluralistic nature of Palestinian politics. There was fierce competition between Fatah and Hamas, a pattern likely to be repeated in future rounds of municipal elections as well as in legislative elections scheduled for July 17. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) is currently working on a new election law based on a mixture of proportional representation, taking the whole country as one electoral district, and a district system. This law is likely to allow for broader participation and representation in the new PLC.

In addition to the importance for Palestinians themselves, Palestine's electoral undertaking is likely to have a regional spillover effect, making it less comfortable for regimes in the area to continue conducting uncontested presidential referenda, and then announcing results of 90 or even 100 percent in favor. By providing an example of free, democratic and pluralistic elections, the Palestinians may be contributing to the process of reform in the Arab world as a whole.

For this demonstration effect to last, however, the Palestinian example has to overcome many obstacles and become irreversible. The most challenging of these obstacles is the continuing Israeli occupation. The Palestinians managed to conduct free elections under occupation, but they cannot build a full democracy under occupation. For a democracy to emerge, thrive and be sustained, it requires a certain degree of stability and prosperity. A political process to end this occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state, as described by U.S. President George W. Bush's June 2002 speech and the "road map," must be set in motion in parallel to the democratic process that has now been set in motion by the ongoing wave of elections in Palestine.

Palestinian reform also faces critical internal challenges. One-time elections, or elections every 10 years or so, do not build a democracy. This year's presidential and legislative elections are the first since 1996. The ongoing municipal elections are the first to take place in Gaza, and the second in the West Bank, since the municipal elections that took place under the Israeli occupation in 1976.

One of the primary reasons for the malfunction of the Palestinian Authority, the spread of corruption and inefficiency, and perhaps even for the breakdown of the peace process, was the failure of the Palestinians to conduct routine and periodic elections. In the absence of elections, accountability and transparency cease to be possible. Therefore, periodic and routine elections at all levels - presidential, legislative and municipal - are a must for creating and consolidating the democratic experience in Palestine. These issues are in the core discussions between Abbas and his Fatah movement and the various political groups, including Hamas, as integral items in any future national accord that provides for political participation and power sharing.

Establishing a strong democratic tradition also requires a true separation of powers, supremacy of the rule of law, strict observance of the principles of accountability and transparency, and a persistent fight against inefficiency, corruption and chaos in Palestinian society. Elections alone cannot make a democracy; they must be matched by efforts to address the complex economic and social problems in Palestinian society, particularly poverty and unemployment.

A democratic process has been set in motion, changing the dynamics of Palestinian politics. It is up to Palestinians to make this process irreversible. Abbas won the elections on a program calling for ending the "militarization of the intifada," a euphemism for stopping violence. For the Palestinians to heed this call in practice, they need to be convinced that there is a viable alternative that will end their agony and bring them closer to freedom and independence. This is where the help of the international community is needed most.