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  • Democratization in the Middle EastPluralism and the Palestinians
  • Ziad Abu-Amr (bio)

On 20 January 1996, as called for by the September 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), voting took place in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza to elect the 88 members of the Palestinian Council, the legislature of the new Palestinian Authority (PA). Despite predictions to the contrary, the elections not only went ahead on schedule but were for the most part honest and orderly, with only a few irregularities in evidence. The campaign period saw almost the whole of Palestinian society become involved in the electoral process. Debate was wide-ranging, covering the peace process with Israel, democratization, human rights, economic conditions, the problem of corruption, and other topics. Despite the intensity of these discussions, both the wider debate and the election campaign were free of “negative campaigning.”

The Fatah movement, PLO chairman Yasir Arafat’s base, won 62 seats—an impressive showing that is bound to add to Arafat’s power. Arafat himself cruised to victory in the presidential race with 88 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, he did have a competitor (Samiha Yusuf Khalil, who got less than 10 percent), which in itself is a good sign. In neighboring Arab countries, presidents usually run unopposed.

Many opposition followers voted even though their groups were formally boycotting the elections. Hamas, the main Islamic opposition group, maintained an official boycott while implicitly giving its adherents permission to go to the polls. The motive was to enable some independent Islamists to win and thus show that Hamas enjoyed popular [End Page 83] support and was not boycotting out of weakness. About ten independent Islamist candidates won, some in the West Bank and some in Gaza. Secular-nationalist and leftist opposition groups, by contrast, were not a factor in the elections. The remaining 16 seats went to independent secular candidates.

Another good sign was the high turnout (over 75 percent) of registered voters. In neighboring Arab countries, elections are usually greeted by popular apathy. The novelty of the event certainly accounted for some of the heavy turnout—these were the first national elections ever conducted among the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and everyone who voted was conscious of participating in a historic event.

The greatest factor in the heavy turnout, however, was the widespread desire for change. Palestinians saw the elections as linked to their hopes of ending the hardships and problems that beset them in almost every sphere of life. These include restrictive Israeli policies toward the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the fledgling PA’s inability adequately to deliver basic public services. The heavy turnout also reflected a popular desire for political participation, power sharing, and the establishment of democratic order. Last but of course not least, many Palestinians saw the elections as a major step toward the attainment of their long-cherished goal of national independence.

The success of the elections has been gratifying, but everyone knows that they are only a prelude to bigger challenges. Time alone will tell whether the Palestinians can meet those challenges and make the transition to democracy.

To comprehend the problem of democratization in Palestine, one must know some of the unique circumstances of the case. With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Palestinian people ceased to exist as a single society occupying a single territory under a single political authority.

In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—the areas of mandate Palestine that remained outside the control of the Jewish state after the 1948 war—the Palestinians lived a split existence. The two enclaves were separated not only by geography, but by a variety of social, economic, and political factors. In 1950, the population of the West Bank received Jordanian citizenship; the area remained under Jordanian jurisdiction until the war of June 1967. Gaza remained Palestinian (with its administration entrusted to Egypt) until the 1967 war changed its status as well.

Despite their keen sense of national identity and relatively high level of social and political organization, the Palestinians of the diaspora never constituted independent political communities. The Arab countries that hosted large...