The first Palestinian election marked a modest start in the establishment of a democratic culture. But its aim, says Ian Black, was to legitimise peace with Israel, not to establish democracyby Ian Black / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO stated that Palestinian elections would “provide a democratic basis for the establishment of Palestinian institutions.”
“Basis” is a mercifully vague term: before polling day on January 20th independent observers were highly critical of arbitrary changes in dates for nominations, campaigning rules and even the number of seats. All these changes originated with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority-the embryonic form of whatever entity finally emerges from the peace process. Elections have taken place not to establish democracy but to legitimise this peace process among the Palestinians.
Many of the 700 candidates were either from Arafat’s own Fatah movement-the historic core of the PLO-or Fatah people running as independents. The main opposition group, the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, stayed away. So did the two Damascus-based left wing “fronts” which have always rejected the Oslo agreement.
Not all Palestinians were dismayed by the apparent lack of choice: for a people who have known only dispersal and occupation, a quasi-national election on their own soil is a big deal. Many candidates attracted lively interest from voters, and some likely members of the 88-seat legislative council will make a difference: Hanan Ashrawi-telegenic spokeswoman for the Palestinians at the 1991 Madrid peace conference-will be nobody’s rubber stamp, with her talk of building civil society and accountability.
Nor will Haydar-Abdel Shafi, the left wing Gazan physician and a leading critic of Arafat. Candidates from East Jerusalem, where the writ of the PLO’s small army of secret and not so secret policemen does not run, will be bolder than most. The Palestinian People’s Party-ex-communists-have some experienced voices too. Divisions within Fatah could provide challenges.
But great expectations will not be met: this modest start to democratic practice reveals a society where personalities-and sometimes money-loom larger than ideas, and where political mobilisation is still based on clans: the decision to opt for 16 constituencies with first-past-the-post voting was designed to favour the big battalions.
Palestinian sociologists observe regression from the days of the intifada, when the leading role of young people and women was reflected in local politics: now PLO bureaucrats returning from abroad have supplanted the “children of the stones” whose uprising made the occupation untenable for Israel and undermined traditional authority. Only 22 women ran for the council.
Inevitably, national questions predominated in the campaign: how significant was the Israeli withdrawal from six large West Bank towns? What…