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Palestine: Political Realities Shape the System

 

The Declaration of Principles or Oslo Agreement, reached in late 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), contained a provision for an elected Palestinian Council to be established. The implementation of the Oslo Agreement required the negotiation of a further detailed agreement, the Interim Agreement. This was completed in Taba in September 1995 and included detailed provisions for holding elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council and, separately, for the head of its Executive Authority. The president (Raees) of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Legislative Council were then elected on 20 January 1996.

Preparations for the elections began in 1994 in parallel with the negotiations for the Interim Agreement. The election law and the conduct of the elections were entirely the responsibility of the Palestinians, although some details of the election arrangements were required to be consistent with the provisions of the Interim Agreement. The final version of the law and the major regulations were put in place only in late 1995.

The political context of the election strongly influenced the available options for the electoral system. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Yasser Arafat would be elected president, and for the presidential election a single-round FPTP system was adopted with little discussion. The assumption was borne out in practice when Arafat received over 80 per cent of the vote against one other candidate.

The choice of system for the Legislative Council elections was much less straightforward. First, agreement within the Palestinian community on accepting and participating in the Interim Agreement process was not unanimous. The emerging Palestinian Authority conducted lengthy discussions backstage with members of Hamas and other Islamic movements which included the question of their participation in elections. Second, the political party system was embryonic. Fatah had the character of a national liberation movement, a political form for which a continuing need was perceived because of the need for unity in moving into ‘final status’ negotiations with Israel (which were not successful). Some other small parties had formed, but many potential candidates were considering standing independently of Fatah. Third, there were some precedents to hand: local elections had been held in Gaza in the 1940s, using Egyptian procedures, and in West Bank cities and towns in the 1970s, using Jordanian procedures inherited from traditions under the British Mandate. There was pressure in particular to follow Jordanian practice.

The choice of a candidate-based electoral system therefore emerged in response to three pressures: the wish to provide a channel for informal candidacies of persons linked to movements which formally rejected the process; the desire of a number of prominent figures to stand as independents; and the recollection of historic elections. The importance placed on simplicity, transparency, speed of counting and confidence in the results also led to a decision in favour of counting at the polling station, thus eliminating preferential systems such as the Alternative Vote (AV) or the Single Transferable Vote (STV) as options. The perception of where natural boundaries existed on the ground thus led to the choice of the Block Vote (BV), with districts which varied in magnitude from 12 in Gaza City down to one in the small towns of Jericho, Salfit and Tubas.

A further discussion centred on the representation of minorities, in particular the Christian community (which accounted for some 10 per cent of the electorate) and the Samaritans (a concentrated community of a few hundred people near Nablus). Six reserved seats were created within the Block Vote system for Christians in the four districts with the highest concentration of Christians (two each in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and one each in Ramallah and Gaza City) and one reserved seat was created for Samaritans in Nablus. Christian candidates had the option to declare themselves as Christian. If the Block Vote count showed that there were not sufficient declared Christian candidates among those in the top positions, the candidate with the lowest vote of those who would otherwise have been elected would be replaced by the declared Christian candidate with the next—highest vote—as indeed happened in all four districts. This meant that there were representatives on the Legislative Council elected with fewer votes than some other candidates who were not elected. While there was some debate on this, it was accepted as legitimate in the context of wide representation and in the aftermath of a successful election.

In practice, the BV electoral system achieved much of what was expected of it. Eighty-seven candidates were nominated in Gaza City, but voters coped well with a ballot paper about a metre long. While few candidates associated with those who rejected the peace process stood, at least one member was elected who might be considered as a bridge to those movements. Candidates on Fatah slates gained an advantage, but voters made clear distinctions between more and less popular individuals. Leading independent figures were elected, as were representatives from minorities. Small towns with a fiercely independent identity gained their own representative. The president and the Legislative Council took office in 1996 with a wide degree of legitimacy within the Palestinian community.

Contributors: Andrew Ellis

last modified March 14, 2006 07:54

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