Founding Elections in a Transitional Period: The First Palestinian General Elections

Article excerpt

The first general elections that took place, in January 1996, in the territories of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), marked a significant step in the political development of the emerging Palestinian entity. This article examines the attitudes of Palestinians toward the elections, the structure and organization of those elections, the actual conduct of the electoral process, and the problems encountered therein. It goes on to analyze the electoral results and the factors that shaped voter behavior.

On 20 January 1996, the first Palestinian general elections were held within the territories of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Earlier elections had been conducted in a number of cities in the West Bank in 1972 and 1976, with Israel's consent, as a goodwill gesture. Those elections had led to the building of the Palestinian national movement when some of the elected mayors had declared their loyalty to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). They also had increased the politicization of the Palestinians in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and contributed indirectly to preparing the ground for the Intifada (uprising), the Oslo accords and the general elections of 1996.1

ATTITUDES TOWARDS THE ELECTIONS

From the time of the announcement of the agreement between the representatives of Israel and the PLO, in August 1993, and the decision to conduct elections in the Occupied Territories as part of the Oslo accords2, the Palestinians as well as the international community began debating two central questions: First, would these elections lead to the emancipation of the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from Israeli rule, and the establishment of an autonomous Palestinian national entity? Second, would these elections lead to the building of a democratic political entity?

Most Palestinians supported the elections of 1996, which they viewed as preparing the ground for a transitional period during which the final status of the Occupied Territories would be determined.3 Elections were considered the most fitting means of choosing the participants for the final status negotiations with Israel, and as the way to set up a democratic political system that would be different from the systems in the surrounding Arab countries. The PLO leadership also saw these elections as an opportunity to demonstrate its strong commitment to the democratic process. It did not want to be perceived as holding on to the reins of power after moving to the Occupied Territories from Tunis and elsewhere, but wished instead to be chosen directly and democratically by the Palestinians dwelling in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The PLO leadership hoped that its newly acquired legitimacy would prove helpful in the course of the peace negotiations with the Israelis,4 and would give greater weight to its demands for Israel's evacuation from all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. From its perspective, therefore, the elections were an important step towards the building of a Palestinian state.5

On the other hand, Palestinian critics of the Oslo accords argued that these accords did not offer the Palestinians what they were seeking, namely, independence and the establishment of a state alongside Israel. They also maintained that the elections gave the Palestinian entity its final shape, with the elected institutions possessing sovereignty only over areas evacuated by Israel, leaving large Palestinian population centers under Israeli control.6

On the issue of democratization, those who supported the elections believed they would lead to the formation of a democratic regime and a pluralistic political system in the Territories. Those who opposed, or had reservations about the peace process, looked at the elections as a game, manipulated by Israel and the institutionalized Palestinian leadership, that would only serve the interests of a small oligarchy within the PLO. …