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Yalla Peace: Out with the old (system)
The Jerusalem Post
15 June 2010

Parliamentary systems do not really work in the Arab world. It definitely doesnít work in Palestine, where coalitions are hard to establish and people vote not on the basis of issues but on ethnicity, religion, tribes and clans.

To survive, Palestinians need a real election system that will result in true representation by the people and for the people, rather than the failed system that has sputtered on and off since 2003.

There is nothing successful about any of the elections in Palestine, from the 2005 municipal and presidential elections to the 2006 legislative elections. International observers like former president Jimmy Carter can claim they were fair, but they are talking about the casting of the votes, not about the process of the election itself.

In fact, the history of Palestinian elections is one mess followed by another, with a minority of voters controlling the government. The 2005 municipal elections were supposed to be completed over several election dates. Voters were to select from two ballots, one a list of parties, the other a list of individual candidates. The election cycle was never completed.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in that same process on January 9, 2005, with 62 percent of the vote. But despite the majority, the system was unfair. State run media coverage was denied to his challengers.

After Abbasís election, Hamas continued to act as a shadow government, engaging in foreign policy and suicide missions against Israel to further destroy the ailing peace process.

Built on the failed municipal elections, the legislative elections went ahead anyway on January 25, 2006.

A real election results when the majority of the voters chooses its leadership. Thatís not what happened. Hamas won the election but never won a majority of the votes.

Hamas won 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats with Fatah winning only 43 seats, later increasing to 45. The remaining seats were won by smaller splinter groups which were less coalitions and more parties set up by individuals who had no real grassroots support.

The voting system was confusing. People voted on two ballots, again to select a ďpartyĒ and then to select individuals. It was intentionally confusing, I think, because the powers that be wanted to undermine Hamas and strengthen Fatah. That backfired.

Hamas won a majority of parliamentís seats, but again, it only won 44 percent of the votes cast on the party lists. More than 50,000 of the 1.1 million votes cast were thrown out. Hamas candidates also only won 41% of the votes on the individual lists, while Fatah candidates won 37%.

Instead of embracing the peace process that brought the elections, jubilant Hamas leaders immediately declared their intention to undermine the peace process. That should not have been surprising as Hamas, and the left-wing rejectionist groups like the Jabha and extremist activists in the West, spent most of the prior 13 years using suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks to block peace.

PRIOR TO the election and the expansion of the parliament from 88 to 132 seats, Fatah held a solid majority, 68 of the original 88 seats. What went wrong? Well, Fatah had the votes. But while Hamas offered no choices, Fatah offered too many choices. That divided its base. Long time Fatah leaders were engaged in an internal battle with young rebels who sought to change the leadership of the party. That should have been decided outside of the election, not during the election.

Rather than challenge the corrupt election system, the ruling Palestinian leadership, including Ahmed Qurei, who was appointed prime minister in 2003, too quickly accepted its fate.

What Palestine needs is a Western-style democratic system where elections are held in two distinct rounds of voting. The first vote represents the process by which party supporters decide who will be their candidates. In the West, that is called a ďprimaryĒ election.

The winners of the primaries then become the candidates who run for office in the final round, called the general election. Only when a candidate wins more than 50% of the votes cast in a general election is that candidate declared the winner.

Because this election process was flawed and there was no clear majority, Palestine was destined for turmoil. Abbas was supposed to run for reelection in 2009 but that never happened because of the Hamas ďvictory.Ē In response, the PLO suspended elections and extended Abbasís term in office. Israel responded by imprisoning many in the Hamas government. Rather than weaken Hamas, Israelís policies empowered it even more.

Recently, elections have been again delayed, but without offering a real alternative. That only makes matters worse. Instead of simply delaying the elections, Abbas should reconstitute the election system. Throw out the parliamentary system. Replace it with a primary-general election process. Require that every office holder be elected by a majority of votes cast. Replace the office of prime minister with a vice president and keep the power in the hands of the president.

In the event that there are more than two parties in an election and more than two candidates, then if no one gets more than 50% of the vote, then the two highest vote-getters would run-off with the winner taking the majority.

Without a new election system, there can be no democracy in Palestine. The turmoil of the failed elections in 2005 and 2006 will continue to undermine Palestinian democracy and prevent the nation from emerging as a whole.

The collapse of secular government in Palestine is not only Israelís biggest concern, it will also be a nightmare for the Palestinians.

The writer is an award-winning Palestinian columnist.

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