Palestinian Legislative Elections: The Catalyst for Political Reform

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Overview:

In the midst of speculation that the July 2005 Palestinian legislative elections may be postponed, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) is scheduled to hold a special session on 18 May 2005 to finalize its discussions on whether or not to amend the Palestinian Election Law. The special session comes just before the primary elections that President Mahmoud Abbas’ party, Fateh, is scheduled to hold on 27 May 2005. The candidates Fateh selects will face the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in what is posed to become a decisive election.

On Wednesday, Palestinian lawmakers are expected to decide on replacing the current legislative voting process, whereby each electoral district votes for a separate list of candidates, with a national list process whereby all districts vote either for or against a single, nation-wide list of candidates for each party. Lawmakers will also vote on increasing the number of council seats from the current 88 to132. Many in Fateh favor the "one slate per political party" approach. Hamas, confident that it has gained support throughout the Occupied Territories, said it will not oppose the national list approach.

The results of the PLC elections may give way to a new Palestinian political landscape and trigger a significant reconstruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The Debate within Fateh

Although Palestinian government officials publicly maintain that the legislative elections will be held according to schedule on 17 July 2005, Fateh is divided by calls to postpone the vote. Some argue a delay would give the party time to improve its standing in the public’s eye. They argue that with more time, Fateh can heal its internal battles and gain political capital from Israel’s anticipated withdrawal from Gaza.

Others believe a delay would serve only to damage the party further by giving the impression that Fateh either is afraid to face Hamas or has reneged on its promise of reform. Those in favor of holding the elections on schedule believe that Hamas is unlikely to exceed the percentage gains it already received in the recent municipal elections. Separately, they do not believe that Fateh can take credit for a "unilateral" withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, whereas they believe Hamas could more likely convince the public that Israel’s decision to quit Gaza is due its resistance and launching of Qassam rockets into Gaza settlements.

Prominent Fateh leaders like Marwan Barghouti, who favors holding the elections on schedule, argue that Fateh should not to rely on help from Israel and the United States.

National Lists vs. District Lists

In 1996, 88 representatives were elected in 16 multi-seat electoral districts. The West Bank was divided into 11 districts and the Gaza Strip into five. A simple majority system was used. Of the 88 seats, Fateh won 49 seats; Fateh-affiliated independent candidates won 15; non-affiliated independents won 17; independent candidates affiliated with Islamist movements won four; and candidates from leftist factions won the remaining three. Seven seats were reserved for religious minorities–”six for Christians and one for Samaritans living in Nablus.

The 88 members of the PLC formulate laws by which the Palestinian Authority (PA) governs in the Occupied Territories. They are automatically members of the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC). The PNC is a quasi-parliament in exile, representing Palestinians worldwide.

A Two-Party Race

Should the PLC adopt a national list approach to legislative elections, a group must secure the vote of 5 percent of the total electorate at least to qualify for seats. The percentage requirement would not pose a problem for Fateh or Hamas; however, it would be an obstacle for the shrinking leftist groups and the emerging independent parties. Groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and independent parties like Mustafa Barghouti’s New Palestinian Initiative would have to join forces and run as one party or a coalition under the national list approach.

The proposed changes would thus narrow the political landscape into two dominant camps: Fateh and Hamas. A third, broadly pluralist coalition might take shape but competition with the established political and resistance movements would prove difficult to surmount.

The results of the recent municipal elections, in which Hamas and Fateh emerged as the major players, further indicates that the upcoming PLC elections will be a two-party showdown.

The PLC and the PNC

To determine the power base of Palestinian groups world-wide, Hamas has called for elections in the PNC. Abbas has agreed to include PNC elections as part of the overall reform process. However, Fateh questions the feasibility of holding PNC elections worldwide, specifically in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Hamas, on the other hand, insists that elections are possible in Syria and Lebanon since campaigning and voting will be restricted to the Palestinian refugee camps.

Hamas wants PNC elections to be held so that membership in the PLO’s Executive Committee–”the highest decision-making body of the PLO–”is based on the percentage of seats each party has secured in the PNC, thus giving it a way in. The Executive Committee consists of 18 members elected by the PNC. Traditionally, Fateh has held a majority in the Executive Committee, with groups like the PFLP, DFLP, independents, and others limited to one representative each. To circumvent the difficulties of holding PNC elections, the Executive Committee has in the past simply appointed PNC members.

Hamas believes that if it wins a strong showing in the upcoming PLC elections and in new PNC elections, it would gain an almost equal number of seats to Fateh in the PLO Executive Committee. On the flip side, the smaller leftist groups and independents would find themselves out of the elite PLO decision-making body for good.

Palestinian Political Attitudes

A May 2005 poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center found that 75 percent of the 1,200 Palestinians surveyed said they would participate in the PLC elections. Although the poll found that the majority still trusts Abbas and is satisfied with his performance, support for Fateh dropped from 42 percent in December 2004 to 36 percent in May 2005. Meanwhile, public support for Hamas remained consistent at 20 percent between December 2004 and May 2005.

Despite Fateh’s dropping numbers, a majority of Palestinians support Abbas’ election platform. Fifty-seven percent oppose military operations against Israeli targets. Although 53 percent of respondents supported the continuation of the intifada, the poll found a "significant" increase in Palestinians who favor ending the intifada–”44 percent compared with 27 percent in June 2004. Furthermore, there was a 12 percent decline in support for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Support for such acts dropped from 62 percent in June 2004 to 50 percent in May 2005.

If the PLC elections are held on schedule, Fateh has less than two months to solidify its approval rating with the Palestinian public and to keep its place at the helm of the PA and the PLO. For Hamas, the July elections could be the first step in an extreme makeover of the Palestinian political landscape.

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