Les Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director for the Middle East, National Democratic Institute
Jeff Fischer, Senior Advisor, International Foundation for Election Systems
Owen Kirby, Director for the Middle East and North Africa, International Republican Institute
Amy Hawthorne, Associate, Democracy and Rule of Law Project, Carnegie Endowment
Summary of Ms. Hawthorne's Opening Comments
This is the second of a series of events hosted by the Carnegie Endowment on democracy in the Palestinian territories. In July, we convened a meeting on the prospects for democratization following President Bush's June 24, 2002 speech calling for new Palestinian leadership. Today, we will discuss the specific issue of Palestinian elections. In late July, at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a joint mission from the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), and the International Republican Institute (IRI) traveled to the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper to conduct a pre-election assessment for Palestinian national and local government elections. The mission has recently issued its report. Representatives from each of the three organizations will present its key findings and recommendations to us today.
Since the report's publication, potentially important developments affecting electoral process have taken place among Palestinians. On September 11, 2002, the Palestinian Legislative Council's (PLC) showdown with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat resulted in his decision to dissolve the cabinet rather than face a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Under pressure to demonstrate his commitment to reform, Arafat issued a decree setting January 20, 2003 as the date for parliamentary and presidential elections. Palestinian officials have stated that they intend to hold local elections in spring 2003.
Summary of Mr. Campbell's Comments
In June, when NDI, IRI and IFES were invited by USAID and by Dr. Sa'eb Erekat, the Palestinian Minister of Local Government, to evaluate the prospects for Palestinian elections, Arafat was under intense pressure from President Bush, from his people and from the international community to hold elections. A January 2003 date was already under discussion. Initially, Dr. Erekat believed that this date would be premature due to the difficulty of conducting elections under the conditions of Israeli reoccupation of West Bank towns and the time required to organize elections. By the time the mission took place in July, however, the Palestinians appeared determined to hold elections in January to prove to the international community that they were capable of holding elections under any circumstances.
The mission evaluated the prospects for elections on both the political and technical or organizational level. The mission sought to address two key questions. First, would it be possible to have "meaningful" elections under curfews, roadblocks and no freedom of movement in the West Bank? Second, would it be possible to complete the technical preparations in time for elections as early as January?
The mission defined "meaningful" elections as those whose outcome was not predetermined. A meaningful process requires that a variety of political voices must be heard; parties, especially smaller parties challenging the current leadership, must be able to compete; and voters must have a clear sense of the purpose of the process and the role of the institutions to be elected. Elections are not ends unto themselves; they are part of the long-term development of democratic institutions.
Palestinian intellectuals, activists, PLC members and some Fatah members have been calling for elections and for broader political reforms for several years. Despite this interest, the mission's Palestinian interlocutors stated that meaningful elections can take place only if Israel lifts its siege of the West Bank and withdraws the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to the positions it held prior to the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000. Palestinians also recognize that the electoral law currently in place may need to be reviewed. Debates about the election process should not be limited to the PLC or to a political elite; the broader public must be involved. At the same time, many Palestinians are reluctant to open a debate on the electoral law at this time. They prefer the next election to be conducted under the legal framework established for the 1996 elections. That framework was negotiated with Israel, and included provisions viewed as favorable to the Palestinians, such as the right of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to take part in PLC and presidential elections. If the electoral law is revised, such provisions could be open to renegotiations with Israel, and this could jeopardize East Jerusalem participation, in particular.
The mission found that its Israeli interlocutors, who included government officials, academics and others, did not believe that Palestinian elections were relevant at this time. Instead, they prefer that the entire Palestinian political system be reformed before elections should be discussed with Israel. Most Israelis want security reform first, economic reform second and elections three to five years later as a capstone to the process. Israel prefers a new Palestinian constitution that would establish a parliamentary system (instead of the presidential system now in force) before any new electoral law is debated. Furthermore, Israeli officials indicated that the prospect of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government allowing Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem to take part in Palestinian elections was practically nil.
The Report's Recommendations
The report stated that meaningful elections could not be held without Palestinian "freedom of movement." The report also concluded that immediate full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas was not necessary to begin organizing elections. Rather, Israel could gradually grant freedom of movement in stages. In the first stage, Palestinian election officials would be allowed to move within and between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the second stage, during campaigning, freedom of movement would be granted to candidates, media and NGOs. In the final stage, freedom of movement would be extended to all Palestinians in order to allow them to vote.
The report also recommended that Palestinians establish a genuinely independent election commission, and introduce a code of conduct for candidates. The purpose of such a code would be to bar from candidacy those Palestinians who had advocated or carried out acts of violence. The report noted that there are numerous precedents from elections elsewhere for such a code of conduct. In the view of the assessment mission, candidates cannot simultaneously participate in peaceful elections and advocate violence. The report did not make a recommendation regarding the type of electoral system the Palestinians should adopt. At present, some leading Palestinians are calling for the establishment of a proportional representation system to replace the majoritarian system articulated in the 1995 electoral law. Mr. Campbell stated that this decision should be made by Palestinians, as there are significant advantages and disadvantages to each system.
Summary of Mr. Fischer's Comments
When Arafat decreed that parliamentary and presidential elections would be held on January 20, 2003, without the Palestinians having enacted any of the measures the mission recommended to lay the groundwork for meaningful elections, three questions presented themselves. Is Arafat signaling that he is not serious about elections because he is aware that technical preparations cannot be completed by January? Does Arafat simply not appreciate the complexity of the process? Or, did he set an early date because it gives him a tactical advantage, making it difficult for opponents to organize on time?
Regardless of his intentions, Arafat has already gained some political dividends from his recent decisions. He lost his cabinet, but he avoided a vote of no confidence by the PLC. The PLC will probably not be able to amend the electoral law before January. The announcement of elections could lead the international community to demand that Israel lift the curfew imposed on the West Bank in order to hold elections. The call for elections in January, furthermore, could bolster Arafat's popularity by showing that he is taking positive steps towards democracy.
Elections can also provide political dividends for all Palestinians: they are a sign of progress toward political reform, and they will provide opportunities for the opposition forces and alternative voices to develop. Elections must be viewed within a larger picture of peace-building efforts.
Technical Obstacles to January Elections
In the view of the mission, there are no institutions ready to support elections taking place in January. The voters' registry is outdated and requires much attention. There is little time for meaningful political debates to develop and for smaller parties to express alternative voices on key national questions. These obstacles are too difficult to overcome in a few months' time. The electoral process either will be delayed or will proceed on a flawed track. International assistance is important, but it should be "process-oriented" rather than "event-driven" as it has typically been. If election preparations are launched, only to be delayed for whatever reason, the assistance should not stop but work to build institutions for future elections.
The International Dimension
Mr. Fischer noted that elections in the West Bank and Gaza are unique in many respects. They are national elections held in a non-state, and they have a significant international dimension. This international dimension manifests itself in two ways: first, Palestinian need the acquiescence of the government of Israel on key issues such as freedom of movement, the electoral law and voting in East Jerusalem; second, the United States will also be unusually involved because of its unique relationship with Israel. Mr. Fischer anticipated that when elections are held, the United States and Israel will exert pressure to prevent those who are "compromised by terror" from running for office. Yet, disqualification of candidates can have many unintended consequences. Generally, decisions about disqualification should be made by an independent judiciary or an international tribunal, but neither institution exists at present in the West Bank and Gaza.
Summary of Mr. Kirby's Comments
Mr. Kirby stated that many had once viewed a nascent Palestinian state as the best hope for democracy in the Arab world, but that this vision has succumbed to the excesses of one party and one-man rule. The Oslo process has completely broken down. Now, as Mr. Kirby noted, "democracy" is being presented as a solution to the present untenable situation. In particular, Palestinian elections are proposed as a mechanism to set the hopes of the Oslo process back on track and to lay the groundwork for a future democratic Palestinian state. Mr. Kirby's presentation explored the appeal of elections as a reform mechanism and what elections might achieve in the current context.
The Palestinian Electorate
Mr. Kirby noted that the Palestinian public appears to want new leadership. Numerous polls conducted since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority indicate that Palestinians are frustrated by the corrupt and autocratic ways of the ruling clique. The recent actions of the PLC in challenging Arafat are a clear indication of the limits of the Palestinian public's patience with its leadership. The Palestinian electorate seems to realize that its present predicament is due in part to the incompetence of current Palestinian leadership. Thus, if granted the opportunity for free and fair elections, the Palestinian electorate might do what no other electorate in the Arab world has yet succeeded in doing: electing a government that truly reflects popular will. Mr. Kirby also noted that the international community seems to expect that free elections would usher in a new leadership not only more interested in good governance, but also more capable of fulfilling its international obligations.
Is this expectation realistic? The assessment mission was asked to examine how "meaningful" elections might take place, that is, elections that reflect the will of the Palestinian people and therefore bring a new, reformist leadership to power. Mr. Kirby noted that for many observers, both in and outside of the Palestinian territories, a starting point for new elections should be the revision of the electoral system that prevailed at the time of the 1996 elections. Mr. Kirby stated that while questions of electoral systems and management are important, and the mission indeed examined such issues, perhaps inadequate consideration has been given to broader questions such as the political conditions and time needed to allow for the emergence of new political formations and electoral actors. While these matters fell outside the mission's mandate, Mr. Kirby offered a few observations.
The Impact of Current Conditions on the Electorate
According to Mr. Kirby, it is by no means certain that under current conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, a "technocratic, competent" Palestinian national leadership would necessarily be elected, even if the 1996 electoral process were revamped to meet the highest international standards. First, the environment of conflict, siege and curfew means that most Palestinians' concerns have turned inward, and they are focused on their families' daily survival. The breakdown of central authority means that many Palestinians are more interested in local elections than in national ones. He noted that pertinent electoral issues at present may have more to do with stomachs than with statehood or institution building. In Mr. Kirby's opinion, this will be the case until there is a drastic change in the overall security, political and economic conditions for Palestinians. Second, it may be difficult to achieve a legislative body with more competence than what exists today, even if Hamas is excluded from the electoral process. Mr. Kirby noted that in the current PLC membership, more than 85 percent have undergraduate degrees and 13 members have doctoral degrees. The majority are professionals. Thus, "competence" may not be the appropriate standard for the PLC's effectiveness.
Mr. Kirby argued that although it is impossible to predict the results of national elections, the next PLC will likely be more willing to stand up to an overbearing executive, and will seek to be more responsive to its constituents than the current Council. The wildcard is how it will address issues of statehood and state-building. This is where assumptions that "elections are the answer" begin to demonstrate their flaws, Mr. Kirby stated. Until the Palestinian electorate is convinced that going to the ballot box will lead to a genuine improvement of present conditions, the exercise may not be worth the investment as emotions and not intellect could prevail at the polls.
Elections Under the Conditions Currently Prevailing
In response to several questions from the audience regarding the viability of holding elections under the current conditions of Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank and ongoing IDF incursions into Gaza, Mr. Cambell and Mr. Fischer concurred that even if an electoral process is launched soon and then postponed due to renewed violence, the mere process of preparing for the elections would be beneficial in terms of developing the electoral infrastructure for future elections. Despite the likely imperfect nature of these elections, they stated, we should not underestimate their importance as a tool for democratization and for the Palestinian people to express their will. The process will not be perfect, but creating the beginnings of democratic institutions, even if imperfect, is beneficial.
Standards for Elections
Some audience members noted that perhaps the report's suggestion for a code of conduct for candidates is too stringent and counter productive, as it could have the effect of excluding candidates with significant political weight.
One participant asked if the panelists, and Mr. Kirby in particular, were recommending that the Palestinians implement certain reforms and wait for certain conditions to hold elections, thus setting an impossibly high standard for an electoral event, and perhaps setting an unrealistic precedent for standards for future elections elsewhere. Mr. Kirby noted that the Palestinians do not have to create everything from scratch, and full reforms may not be necessary. The 1996 system, though flawed, is not entirely useless. Moreover, there is considerable domestic and international demand for these requirements.
The PLC's Confrontation with Arafat
In response to a question about the impact of the recent showdown between the PLC and Arafat on the electoral process, Mr. Fischer and Mr. Campbell contended that it would not fundamentally change the political dynamic existing with in the Palestinian Authority, but instead would likely intensify the competition already present. It is not clear how these events will affect individual legislator's decisions or the voters' choices, but they seem to add a sense of urgency to the entire election process.
Perceptions of U.S. Policy towards Elections
Mr. Campbell pointed out that in a recent meeting of the Task Force on Palestinian Reform (comprised of representatives from the U.S., UN, E.U. and Russia) U.S. government officials declared their commitment to Palestinian elections if a series of electoral reforms are enacted first. This apparently took some Israeli officials by surprise. They believed that President Bush's statements calling for Palestinian elections were designed for the media, and did not indicate a serious U.S. commitment. Palestinians generally remain skeptical of American intentions with regard to Palestinian elections. They believe that the new U.S. emphasis on Palestinian democracy is an American and an Israeli ploy to undermine the Palestinian cause and to weaken Arafat or remove him from power. Some Palestinians want to utilize whatever opportunity exists to bring about democracy, regardless of U.S. or Israeli intentions.
The Hon. Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Chief Representative of the Palestinian National Authority to the United States, affirmed the Palestinian people's desire for democracy. He stated that the Palestinian Authority is serious in its efforts to hold meaningful elections in January 2003 and is exerting all efforts to ensure their fairness and impartiality. He argued that the recent resignation of Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, from his position as the head of the election commission indicates this commitment to fair elections, as this responds to calls for a more independent election commission. The Palestinians' suspicions about U.S. pressures for political reform derives from their resistance to external interference in their internal political affairs, and does not reflect a rejection of democracy. Palestinian voters might decide to re-elect Arafat, or they might not, but this is a decision that they must reach on their own. The State Department's reluctance to make a commitment to encourage Israel to allow Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem to participate in Palestinian elections highlights the difference between the American and Palestinian agendas for those elections. Palestinians cannot accept an election without the participation of the East Jerusalem Palestinian population. For the U.S., the question of East Jerusalem is only one aspect of a peace deal. Palestinians need international support to conduct elections in the territories where they lack sovereignty, but they do not want outside pressure with regard to which candidates can run, as this would undermine the democratic process.
The panelists agreed that international assistance should play a role in Palestinian elections, but stated that it should be part of a long-term commitment toward institution building for a future Palestinian state. Palestinian efforts, however, must be underway in advance of any international involvement. Some electoral issues may require international involvement, such as the question of East Jerusalem participation, but the initiative for such matters must come from the Palestinians.
Summary Prepared by Tamer Mahmoud, Junior Fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project