Posted on January 29, 1996 in Washington Watch

[I was an international monitor observing the January 20 Palestinian elections. On election day I covered over 2 dozen polling stations in the Khan Younis district of Gaza. It was one of the most remarkable and moving events I have had the privilege to witness. So many people and scenes left strong impressions on me. Here is one:

At each poll we were to asked to observe whether elections laws were being violated. One such law provided that an illiterate voter could ask for and receive assistance from someone else, but a literate person could assist only three such illiterate voters. At one poll I observed a small girl assisting an older woman with her ballot. A few minutes later I saw the same girl assisting an even older woman. After another few minutes I saw the same girl helping a man. At that point I felt I should speak to her.

I asked her age. She was twelve. I asked what she was doing. She replied that since she was the only member of her entire family who could read that her parents had asked to accompany them to the polls so they could vote. She was proud of her accomplishments as her parents had been proud that they had an opportunity to vote.]

The recent Palestinian elections were significant for the profound impact they had on internal Palestinian politics. They were, in a real sense, a second Palestinian intifada, a psychologically self-liberating and politically transforming event.

While some observers and commentators have looked only at the outcome of the elections, it is most important to note the social dynamism of the process.

The elections have created a new and well-deserved self-confidence among the Palestinian officials and bureaucrats who implemented them. From a technical perspective, the elections were a marvel. In less than one month 7,000 teachers were recruited and organized in teams to register voters. In a comprehensive sweep of the West Bank and Gaza, over 1,000,000 Palestinians were registered – over 95% of all who were eligible to vote!

Within the same short time, the Palestinian election teams were able to establish the procedures and laws governing the campaign period and the election itself; to demarcate the electoral districts and polling places; and train the teams who would supervise the voting and count the ballots.

These enormous challenges were met in so short a period of time because in every instance Palestinians were forced to react to an external factor: the negotiations with the Israelis were an intrusive prerequisite.

Many of the objections that have been raised regarding the process leading up to the election are unfairly placed at the doorstep of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). It is true, for example, that Palestinian election officials made changes at what appeared to be the last minute – but in many instances they were responding to the negotiating process which imposed conditions and timetables on the entire electoral process.

Although the conduct of the elections was largely free, they were still not free elections in the sense that Palestinians are not yet a free people. In fact, this may have been the first election of its kind: a free election among a people who still lack sovereignty and live encircled by a military occupation. Thus, many aspects of these elections were distorted by continuing Israeli domination which imposed limits on Palestinian freedoms and necessitated compromises which the Palestinians were forced to accept in order to have the elections in the first place.

Some issues can be best understood when seen in this context: take, for example, the complaint that candidates did not receive equal time on Palestinian television and radio. Since the PNA was only able to secure the right to operate one national radio and one television station during the hard-fought negotiations with Israel, it is difficult to see how all 678 candidates could have received equal coverage on the available outlets. As it was, the Voice of Palestine radio made available two free minutes to all candidates. That itself took up too many hours of not very interesting air time. The Palestinian television station has been criticized for showing too much of Yasir Arafat and not enough of his challenger, Samiha Khalil. A closer examination of the coverage reveals that it was not Arafat the candidate but Arafat the PLO Chairman and PNA President presiding over celebrations in the newly liberated cities of Jenin, Tulkarem, Nablus, Ramallah, and others. These were, in fact, historic events, making their coverage a legitimate editorial decision. To criticize this would be the same as criticizing the U.S. media for focusing so much attention during December and January on President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, despite the fact that the coverage was of their critical negotiations over the 1996 budget and not of their 1996 presidential campaigns.

Despite these difficulties and distortions in the election process resulting from the fact that Palestinians could not freely set up their system in their own time frame and in a manner which would fully meet their needs – the remarkable thing is that Palestinians embraced this process, performed the burdensome task of making it work, and created a system that ran as efficiently as any most observers had seen.

If the technical aspects of the elections were noteworthy, so too were the political aspects of the process. It was transformative. Palestinian society was profoundly affected.

In the beginning of the process, Fatah activists announced their slates of candidates, many of whom had been leaders of the intifada. The central leadership of Fatah rejected many of these candidates and sought to balance the slates by adding leading businessmen, members of prominent families and other members of the Fatah leadership who had returned to Palestine from abroad.

What was significant was that the Fatah activists struck from the lists and others who had not made the list of the central leadership decided to run anyway. As any American party leader would note, Fatah did what party leaders always do – attempt to create balance and appeal to diverse constituencies. The independents also did the right thing by challenging their leadership. This open and free challenge is the best guarantee of democracy in practice. The fact that so many of these challengers won on January 20 is evidence that the process was open and provided voters with an opportunity to choose their own representatives.

Not only Fatah but also Hamas and the Popular Front were affected by the elections. At one point the leadership of Hamas and the PFLP from within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip decided to run for the Council and support the elections. In the end, however, they were forced by their outside leadership to withdraw their candidates. Nevertheless, the inside Hamas leadership actually did encourage supporters to vote. The fact that there was a 90% turnout in some of the Hamas dominated areas of Gaza makes it clear that they understood the importance their constituents placed in the entire process and, therefore, the need to establish independence from their outside leadership.

In all of these instances, the leading Palestinian movements were affected by the election process. As a result, many observers now expect further changes: the transformation of these movements into political parties; greater assertiveness and independence exercised by the leadership inside Palestine; and the creation of new political formations by blocs of newly-elected Council members.

Not only were the political groups changed by the election process, but the candidates themselves were transformed by the act of campaigning. For three intense weeks every diwan, every social gathering, every city street was the scene of intense political discussions. To run as a candidate for election is a unique experience. The act of going directly to tens of thousands of people – seeking support, debating issues, convincing voters of one’s own program and qualifications – in the end these actions not only invest candidates in the process of election but sensitizes them to the concerns of those whose support they seek. It was not difficult to observe how many of the candidates had changed over the three weeks of campaigning: they spoke more aggressively about their ideas and programs; regardless of whatever positions they may have formerly held (whether they had been Ministers of the PNA or opponents), they uniformly condemned corruption and spoke of reform and democracy; and all were eager to take visitors to meet their constituents – their new source of affirmation and authority.

Even the physical landscape of Palestine changed. In the past, the walls of some streets were covered with slogans and posters. The slogans were protests and the posters were pictures of martyrs. Today’s banners and slogans are campaign pledges and exhortations, and the faces are of candidates who hope to be leaders of the future Palestine Council.

With all of these many levels of changes, the people of the West Bank and Gaza also became transformed and energized – the best evidence of which was the massive showing on election day: almost 800,000 turned out to vote, despite real hardships. In Jerusalem there was intimidation and risk as hundreds of Israeli military personnel checked identifications, harassed, and even arrested potential voters. In Hebron, too, there were taunts from right-wing settlers and a fear of violent disturbances. Many traveled long distances and, in many instances, waited hours to cast their ballots.

In one polling place in the Khan Younis area of Gaza, 1,600 voters (over three-quarters of whom were illiterate) came to that one location to vote. Many arrived at 7:00 in the morning and were still waiting to vote by 4:00 in the afternoon. The overwhelming response was too much for the small group of election officers running the poll. Because so many voters were illiterate, it took even longer for them to cast their ballots. That poll, like some others, stayed open until 11:30 at night so that the crowds that had been chanting for their right to vote would not have to be disappointed. At this particular polling station, four officers stayed at work for more than 16 hours, checking lists and collecting ballots, and then returned after a short break to sort and count the 1,600 ballots that had been cast. This level of commitment and public service was in evidence throughout the West Bank and Gaza on election day.

Were the elections fair? From the observations of most monitors, the answer is decidedly yes. Were there irregularities? Of course there were; but many alleged irregularities turned out to be rumor and could not be substantiated. Some others were true but, having participated in and observed elections throughout the U.S. over the last 30 years, I can honestly say that I saw nothing in Gaza that I had not seen in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Detroit, and this despite our 200 year experience with democracy. This is not to excuse such behavior; but rather to simply put irregularities into context. Overall, the elections were free and fair – and the questionable behavior was minimal.

Even in the circumstance of lacking real sovereignty (resulting in either direct Israeli interference in the case of Jerusalem and Hebron or indirect interference, or in drawn-out negotiations and other restrictions placed on free Palestinian movement, expression and assembly), of the shortness of the time given to organize the elections and train the management teams to run them, and the difficulties presented in some areas by illiteracy and traditionalism – Palestinians overwhelmingly embraced the process and made it work.

The entire election process produced a transformation in Palestinian politics. The election of a new Council has created a new leadership forum for emerging Palestinian national leaders and for new Palestinian political programs. The process has also yielded a body of leaders who must be responsive to those who chose them, and who will impose a greater degree of accountability in governance. It is this body that will now have the responsibility of protecting the rights of those who elected them: protecting providing a check on arbitrary arrests like those that marred the pre-election period; overseeing the decision-making process; and working with the Executive Branch to provide legislation to govern the daily affairs of Palestine. It is this body, in the years to come, that with the newly-elected Palestinian President will proclaim a Palestinian state in Palestine.

Palestinians may not yet be free or have sovereignty over the land of Palestine. But they now have the fruits of a democratic process, which will now be developed and institutionalized. A great deal remains to be done, but January 20 marked a giant step in the right direction.

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