In the post-colonial era, struggles for democracy have increasingly been seen and presented as necessary to fulfill the aborted promises of national liberation. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, electoral democracy has come to be viewed as the most effective mechanism to confront the usurpation of states, resources, and indeed independence by autocrats and narrow, self-selected elites.
In a world where dictatorships of both the individual and party variety have generally approached governance as the challenge of subordinating institutions to their will, excluding the citizen from a meaningful role in decision-making, and keeping foreign sponsors satisfied in order to perpetuate their own role and enhance their access to national assets, genuinely free and fair elections would appear to be the essential pre-requisite to restoring the people to their rightful place in state and society. We have seen this most recently in the Arab world, where millions have been clamoring for the right to a meaningful vote in order to establish functioning democracies and begin redressing the balance of half a century of misrule.
Elections are, of course, only one element of democracy, which also requires pluralism, institutions, freedoms, and other elements. It was, in fact, not so long ago that many saw policies promoting socio-economic justice, rather than regular elections, as the main ingredient of democracy. And in countries such as Syria during the 1940s and 1950s, it would not have been too difficult to construct the argument that while its elections were genuine, the resulting parliaments were in many respects an intra-elite charade. Others, particularly in newly-independent African and Asian polities, cautioned that competitive elections would serve to enhance ethnic, tribal and regional rivalries rather than national unity, and thus undermine the task of post-colonial reconstruction. Whatever the merits of such arguments or what one may think of them, it is important to recall that there was a time in the not-so-distant past where elections, and even democracy, were treated with less than religious fervor by men and women of good faith who were genuinely committed to the collective and individual rights of their people and the principle of participative citizenship.
In the above context, the Palestinian case has always been something of an anomaly. In an era in which national liberation struggles were dominated by highly-centralised movements that adopted rigorous codes of internal discipline, and which routinely suppressed or even liquidated internal and external rivals and dissidents – or tolerated them only for cosmetic purposes – the PLO was a broad coalition of forces, what Rashid Khalidi has called an “alphabet soup” of movements large and small. Some were exclusively national in orientation, others emerged as local branches of regional movements, with yet others existing as mere surrogates for various Arab regimes.
Yet, particularly after the various Palestinian guerilla organisations took control of the PLO and its institutions in the aftermath of the 1967 War and until at least 1982, it developed into a genuinely national, genuinely representative, and genuinely legitimate body. Tellingly, the main Palestinian political organization that was not incorporated into the PLO during this period, the Palestine Communist Party, never questioned the PLO’s status and in fact pursued integration – an ambition that was finally realized in 1987. With the exception of Hashemite loyalists and Israeli collaborators, Palestinians who did not feel authentically represented by the PLO were, during this era, a rare species.
Looking back upon the Palestinian experience, it is noteworthy that it was most representative - whether judged in terms of leadership, institutional composition, policies, or virtually any other criteria – when it was least democratic in the conventional, contemporary sense of the term. This is not to say that the PLO was representative because it was not democratic, or that it actively opposed participation in its affairs by its constituent organisations and the rank-and-file. To the contrary. The PLO was in fact a highly pluralistic entity, and in this respect easily and successfully competed with not only organisations such as the Algerian FLN and Vietnamese NLF, but also for example the ANC of South Africa.
Palestinian pluralism has many roots and explanations, of which three perhaps stand out:
- The memory of the catastrophic rivalries and divisions that plagued the national movement during the Mandate Period, and which the PLO leadership viewed as contributing to the defeat of the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt and ultimately the 1948 nakba;
- The leadership’s realization that it would be impossible and perhaps suicidal to seek to impose rigid controls upon a people dispersed over a variety of states, the regimes of which were either hostile to the PLO or unprepared to tolerate an active PLO role within their territory;
- The political temperament and disposition of key PLO leaders, who not only viewed political discipline, the methods required to enforce it, and its political consequences with distaste, but – particularly in the case of Yasir Arafat – also saw pluralism as a reality that could be instrumentalised to enhance power and position by pursuing divide and rule tactics vis-à-vis competing factions, whether internal or external.
The flip side of this pluralism was the quota system, in which positions within the PLO and its institutions were apportioned among its constituent members on the basis of their relative strength. Stronger movements such as Fatah, or those enjoying powerful external backing such as Al-Sa’iqa, acquired a disproportionate share of the spoils, but room was reserved for unaffiliated independents as well, and the representation of each geographical constituency was similarly ensured.
The PNC was the ultimate expression of the quota system, and best represented both its positive and negative aspects. Among the most positive aspects was that pluralism, in the absence of elections, created a requirement for consensus – or at least the perception of consensus and the belief that it had been achieved. This is quite different from competitive electoral democracy, where even in a genuinely pluralistic system it is considered entirely legitimate and appropriate for winners to exclude losers from governance and the decision-making process. There were, of course, elections within various PLO subsidiary institutions. But these were not national or popular in scope and their verdict remained subordinate to the quota system and ultimately contributed to its functioning.
It is a highly unpopular position to take in the twenty-first century, but it cannot be denied that, during a particular era and within a particular political context, the quota system in fact functioned reasonably well. Perhaps this was because the presence of thousands of armed guerillas in Lebanon prevented the leadership from excessive abuse of this system, or alternatively that the multiplicity of powerful and credible leaderships throughout the PLO and its institutions helped prevent a single faction from leveraging the quota system to establish unchallenged hegemony. Ask any middle-aged Palestinian whether they felt more represented by the PNC in 1985 or the PLC today. I suspect even some current PLC members would respond that the PNC was more up to the task.
To be sure, the quota system had many faults, not least of which was the promotion and later institutionalization of the patronage system and excessive terms of office for careerists who lacked professional qualification and political commitment. But if democracy is the standard, the PLO during the 1970s withstands comparison with its Asian, African and Latin American counterparts extremely well.
To be sure, the quota system would be virtually impossible to resuscitate in light of the transformation of Palestinian realities since 1982. More to the point, it should remain dead and buried. Nevertheless, it is perhaps the greatest irony that those qualities democracy is supposed to preserve and promote, such as representation, the supremacy of institutions, leadership renewal, peaceful transition of power, and an inclusive policy process, began to decline and in some cases disappear altogether after the introduction of elections in the context of 1993 Oslo Agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.
This, of course, has more to do with the nature of Oslo and the PA than it does with elections. Yet, we need to examine whether Palestinian elections – particularly free and fair elections – ultimately contributed to or undermined Palestinian democracy, the rights and freedoms of citizenship, and the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. Put simply, did they promote or hinder the national project?
This, in turn, raises a broader question. This is not if the Palestinians people are ready for democracy, but rather whether competitive democratic elections are an appropriate instrument for Palestinians to overcome the particular crises confronting them at this stage in their history. In other words, is democracy ready for the Palestinians?
In this respect there are several pertinent observations to be made regarding the consequences of Palestinian elections since the Oslo agreements:
- These elections have done nothing to enhance the legitimacy of those elected. The best example in this regard is Yasir Arafat, whose standing after his election as PA president never approached the levels he enjoyed as a consensual, unelected leader prior to Oslo. Similarly, the stature of Hamas, particularly its regional and international legitimacy, has only suffered since the 2006 PLC elections. This would seem to suggest that under colonial conditions and particularly in the context of struggles for self-determination, a mandate from the people derives – quite appropriately – first and foremost from the ability to promote the national project rather than from the ballot box.
- These elections have done nothing to promote Palestinian national unity. The 1996 elections were, in fact, the institutional expression of the most traumatic fragmentation to afflict the Palestinian people since 1948 – namely its division into an enfranchised minority resident in the occupied territories, eligible to vote and serve in parliament, and everyone else. Combined with the subordination of the PLO to the PA, the majority of Palestinians – those residing in the diaspora and within Israel – were effectively disenfranchised in 1996. Similarly, the 2006 elections precipitated the politico-geographical schism within the occupied territories. There are of course many reasons for the Fatah-Hamas conflict, but the belief within both camps that their rivalry should be resolved on the basis of elections rather than consensus and power-sharing is a key ingredient. Furthermore, Hamas’s success in the 2006 elections has ironically complicated rather than facilitated its and Islamic Jihad’s integration into the PLO.
- These elections have done nothing to promote more representative institutions or greater popular participation in the policy process. Indeed, if one compares PA institutions today to PLO institutions thirty to forty years ago, they have degenerated into a mere shadow of their precursors.
- These elections have done nothing to promote leadership renewal. This is, in fact, no less true of internal Fatah and Hamas elections.
- More recently, the demands for such elections have done nothing to promote Palestinian reconciliation. There appears to be some truth to the conclusion by Jamil Hilal that elections conducted under conditions of foreign domination or intervention – such as in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – tend to exacerbate polarization rather than contribute to unity.
It would of course be extremely simplistic to hold elections responsible for the above problems, because they were conducted within the framework of the Oslo Agreements and the broader disintegration of the Palestinian national movement – factors that are ultimately responsible for these crises. Nevertheless, Palestinian elections – particularly free and fair Palestinian elections – have played a vital role in this process. In part, they were conducted to legitimize an illegitimate political disposition of the occupied territories that has led to the further consolidation of occupation and Palestinian fragmentation; in part, they have been central to the process of establishing the supremacy of the PA over that of the PLO; and in part, they have served to legitimize Palestinian fragmentation and disenfranchisement.
These objectives would have been much more difficult, and perhaps impossible, to achieve without the imprimatur of free and fair Palestinian elections. If Hamas had been forcibly excluded from the 2006 elections, for example, and East Jerusalem Palestinians prevented from participation by the Israel, it would have been much more difficult for the negative political consequences of such elections to be sustained.
The broader observation, in terms of the crisis of the national movement, is that PA elections have come at the expense of Palestinian pluralism and indeed of the prospects of a vibrant democracy based on fundamental national and individual rights. To be sure, Palestinian elections can, under the right circumstances, serve to enhance Palestinian rights and democracy. The 1976 West Bank municipal elections, even though of a purely local character, and conducted under conditions of military occupation and continuous Israeli interference and sabotage, are perhaps the best example of this. The lesson here is that when it comes to elections, context is everything. Are they an act of resistance against occupation by a vibrant national movement embedded in a dynamic national project, or an exercise to transform and disembowel that movement and project?
Under current circumstances, therefore, the priority should be a reconstruction of pluralism, and formulation of an inclusive national program and strategy based on consensus and that mobilises the Palestinian people in its entirety. And, at least for the time being, elections would appear to form an obstacle to this process. Experience demonstrates that elections make sense only when they further an existing national project, and fail when they are perceived as the solution to its crisis.
This holds no less true of the demand for PNC elections as the method of reviving the PLO. It is questionable whether such elections can indeed be held. But even if they can, the PLO needs to be revived first for such an exercise to be meaningful. Unattractive as it may sound, what is required first is consensus and agreement among the dominant parties about the national movement, national project, and national program. Once the supreme national interest has been agreed and defined, we can then determine – through competitive democratic elections if feasible – who is most qualified to lead this project and implement this program. The alternative is a project and program that is rewritten from A to Z by the winner of periodic elections. Put in more conventional terms, we need fundamental constitutional principles that are immune to the outcome of the next election.
With specific reference to the occupied territories, the advocates of PA elections need to provide persuasive answers to a number of specific questions. If elections are meant to facilitate reconciliation, how will they ensure that not only Fatah and Hamas, but no less importantly Israel does not prevent a free and fair electoral campaign and poll in which all Palestinians in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip can participate? If the objective is a government chosen by the people, how do they propose to ensure that victors opposed by Israel are able to exercise their constitutional powers and not forced to govern from a prison cell or coffin? Israel is the herd of elephants in every room, yet in discussions about elections is too often treated as a solitary ant. Proposing solutions entails an obligation to demonstrate not only that they can be implemented in practice, but also how key challenges are to be overcome.
Since comparisons with South Africa have become so popular among Palestinians, it is worth recalling that in South Africa apartheid capitulated before rather than after or as a result of elections, and that Nelson Mandela was elected to lead a state whose constitution and institutions had already been negotiated and agreed upon. Indeed, a comparison with Egypt and Tunisia is here instructive. The latter rushed to the ballot box before achieving consensus on the parameters of regime change and the new constitutional order. The unsurprising result has been insufficient regime change, attempts at establishing a new hegemony by the electoral victor, and increased civil strife.
In conclusion, Palestinian elections are unlike those that may be conducted in Brazil or Sweden. Unless conducted as an act of resistance by a dynamic national movement with a clear political agenda, they at best contribute nothing to either that movement or agenda. In the current context of division, they also contribute at best nothing unless the basis of reconciliation is first agreed upon and implemented. Promoting elections makes sense only if there is prior agreement among rival forces of what such elections are – and are not – about. In the current Palestinian reality, elections are a tactical instrument rather than a strategic principle.
In practice, this means that the Palestinian priority remains the construction of a political agreement, through dialogue and negotiations, between Fatah and Hamas about the basis of reconciliation, and between these behemoths and the rest of the Palestinian political spectrum about the nature and purpose of the national movement and national program. Neither of these is likely to materialize in the absence of significant pressure and/or changes on the ground that could lead these movements to conclude they have more to lose from maintaining the status quo than from moving forward.
In view of the comprehensive nature of the Palestinian crisis, a consensus that does little more than reflect the lowest common denominator and paper over disagreements with bland formulas will prove useless and transient in equal measure. There is no reason why a majority should not prevail, as was often the case in the 1970s and 1980s, provided a critical mass of detractors do not feel compelled to withdraw from the movement. This process should, in turn, lead to the revival or construction of a legitimate leadership and inclusive institutions that are equally fora to negotiate and ratify the details of the above, and agents that mobilise the entirety of the Palestinian people and the entirety of its resources for the struggle for self-determination and individual rights. Once the horse has been put before the cart, the value of and need for a variety of elections can and should be considered.
[This piece was originally posted at Masarat.ps.]