Palestinian Elections: Why, When, Where, Who?

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With the publication of the French (European?) initiative (ideas?) seeking to offer an alternative political approach to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, as opposed to the purely security-oriented conditional American-Israeli approach, the idea of Palestinian elections is once again on the agenda.

While no one with any sense would attribute the dangerous escalation in conditions to the domestic Palestinian issue of elections (or lack thereof), it is important not to dismiss the idea out of hand without giving it the proper attention it deserves.

Elections, after all, may be the handle that would offer a way out of the current deadlock.

The argument put forth by many in the Palestinian Authority for rejecting elections (at least at present) may be summarized as follows:

The physical conditions on the ground, mainly the siege and fragmentation of the Palestinian territory, with the lack of freedom of movement, plus the constant Israeli military escalation in the form of shelling, bombing, assassinations, home demolition, incursions, killings, etc. all render the mere possibility of conducting free and fair elections entirely unfeasible.

The same conditions, along with the further aggravation of the failure of the peace process, will weigh heavily against any “moderate” or “pragmatic” leadership, and therefore will render the election results non-representative-having been conducted in an “abnormal” state of crisis and instability.

These prolonged, adverse conditions have also served to radicalize the Palestinian public-caught in a state of collective pain, trauma, and grief-hence giving an unfair advantage to the opposition, primarily to the Islamists.

The measures undertaken by the PA in pursuing the “militants” and incarcerating activists as a result of international pressure, as well as the PA institutional, structural, and economic weakness (bordering on collapse) have also undermined the PA and weakened its chances of victory while strengthening the Islamic groups who are being seen as the only people resisting the occupation while providing the destitute Palestinian population with services and economic assistance that the PA (facing bankruptcy and internal fragmentation) has been rendered incapable of offering.

A non-declared underlying reason has constantly been the PA’s aversion to holding elections (in any sector or authority) both as a matter of historical practice or inherent disinclination or out of fear of losing the control and power it enjoys.

As an internal requirement for the reinforcement of democracy and democratic practice, as well as for strengthening the internal front, empowering and guiding the decision-making process, carrying out the necessary institutional and economic reform, sustaining a genuine separation of powers, and ensuring both efficiency and accountability in the public sector, the Palestinian people on the whole have been demanding elections for a long time.

Many members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and civil society have been lobbying for and publicly demanding the holding of legislative and presidential elections in Palestine for at least the last two years, or since the “expiration date” of the PLC itself in January 1999.

Another public call was for the long-overdue municipal or local government elections that have been put on hold mainly because of the previous Israeli government’s refusal to implement agreements pertaining to further redeployments and to ensure territorial contiguity in the Palestinian territory.

Even sectoral elections in many associations and unions have been put on hold as a result of “abnormal” conditions, thus weakening an important factor in the democratization and nation-building process.

The prolongation of the “transitional phase” as determined by the Declaration of Principles signed in 1993 (and subsequent agreements) and the failure of the peace talks on permanent status issues have created a legal debacle best described as a political and democratic “limbo” in Palestine.

The debate over “elections under occupation” was never resolved, but rather served to extend a period of uncertainty that debilitated the duly elected institutions and further undermined Palestinian domestic realities and cohesiveness.

With the reemergence of the debate at the initiative of the Europeans, even during these most critical and difficult of times, the argument for internal empowerment and legitimacy still holds true.

Beyond that, and as a means of addressing and redressing the current situation, the argument in favor of elections may be summarized as follows:

The requirements for holding free and fair elections could be the most appropriate opening for European (and American?) intervention in conditions on the ground to bring pressure to bear on Israel to lift the siege (both internal and external) and to end Israeli military assaults on the Palestinians.

The same requirements could provide the mechanisms for international monitoring whereby the physical presence of a large number of monitors would contribute directly to the reduction or elimination of friction and violence.

The Palestinian people in the OPT as a whole will not only feel empowered, but will also re-engage in a process that would offer them the promise of change and effective participation-an opportunity that would effect the collective mood and ethos and consequently refocus attention and energies towards more constructive pursuits.

The requirements would also include the alleviation of the drastic economic hardships that have crippled “normal” life in order to transform the dynamic from the “survival” and “endurance” mode to a more proactive participatory dynamic with a positive outlook.

The legitimacy of a duly elected leadership would also extend beyond the boundaries of Palestine to prevent further external meddling in (and manipulation of) the domestic political scene, thereby depriving the ilks of Sharon of the arrogant attempts at determining the “relevance” or “effectiveness” of the Palestinian leadership.

While the real issue is not the timing, however, these elections should be planned and announced well in advance in order to provide for the prerequisite steps on the ground.

Sufficient advance notice should also prepare the collective Palestinian mind set for adopting and adapting to the substantive issues to be addressed by the candidates, while affording the latter sufficient time to articulate their agendas and platforms and to address their constituencies accordingly.

These elections should also be part of the preparatory steps for statehood, rather than an after-the-fact move. It is particularly important that the requisite conditions for the embodiment of statehood are in place, and that the “declaration of statehood” does not become an abstract or recurrent political exercise with no concrete substance.

Any initiative or ideas, by Europeans and others, must include assurances and guarantees to ensure that this is not just another abstract political exercise, a “buying time” device, or a move that can be exploited by the Sharon government to create more facts and to implement more of its dangerous policies.

Ultimately, there has to be a qualitative shift in the prevailing dynamic, and not just a temporary diversion. This requires the introduction of a new paradigm with a reinvigorated approach to peace making that can alter conditions on the ground while simultaneously charting a firm and clear alternative course-the path to a just peace.

Finally, it is important to reiterate that the real problem is not inherently within the Palestinian arena despite the fact that it has become increasingly problematic and destabilized. The issue is whether serious efforts can be exerted and can be brought to bear on the dangerous policies and irresponsible adventurism of the extremist government in Israel. Concurrently, it is crucial that the American administration is educated into the implications and consequences of its inaction, misdirected action, and-to be blunt-its obsequious attitude towards Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby when it comes to foreign policy in general and the Palestinian question in particular. Treading water, crisis management, or simplistic trade-offs to placate the Arab world do not form the solid foundations for a responsible foreign policy-but more to be said about that later and separately.

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