- During the January 1996 elections, our news agency worked with a Palestinian news team to help Peace Watch cover the PA elections, as reported below. When I asked Amercian election observer team chairman Jimmy Carter about the obvious rigging of the PA elections, he smiled and said that “we have problems like that in Chicago too”. – David Bedein
As the January 1996 elections approached, Arafat was assured of victory for himself and his loyalists in Fatah. The steps he had taken since assuming power had succeeded in bolstering his position and shunting aside most potential challengers. In fact, Arafat almost ended up running unopposed, as the best-known individuals who considered challenging him-including rights activist Iyad a-Sarraj and the popular Haydar Abed a-Shafi (who had headed the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid conference) decided that there was little point in running in the political climate that had been created. In the end, the only person who decided to face off against Arafat was Samiha Halil, a little-known, 72-year-old women’s rights activist, who was hardly in a position to compete for mainstream support in the traditional society of the West Bank and Gaza.
Nonetheless, Arafat took advantage of his monopoly on power to turn a sure victory into a landslide. He adopted an electoral system for the Council races that favored Fatah and undercut the chances of the smaller parties, and that played a role in persuading most Islamic and left-wing groups to boycott the elections.154 Within Fatah, he overturned the results of party caucuses and replaced independent-minded local nationalists chosen in balloting among party activists in each district with his own hand-picked slates-often dominated by loyalists who had come with him from Tunis. During the campaign, PA police stepped up their intimidation of candidates running against Fatah nominees for seats in the Council, while government ministers and other PA officials used the resources of their offices to further their candidacies. On election day, the massive presence of Palestinian policemen in and around the polls-in direct violation of the campaign law Arafat had promulgated-had a clear effect on voters. This effect was especially pronounced with regard to the approximately 100,000 illiterate voters, who were often “assisted” in filling out their ballots by policemen or Fatah officials.155
When the results were announced, it became clear that Arafat’s work had paid off handsomely. He received an overwhelming mandate, capturing 87.3 percent of the votes, compared to 9.9 percent for Halil.156 Though Arafat claimed that he “was looking for 51 percent,” he certainly did not mean it. Winning by a landslide was a strategic goal, whose purpose was to make him appear to be the unchallenged leader of his people.157 Arafat also got most of what he wanted in the Council elections: Fatah won 50 seats and candidates closely tied to it won an additional 17.158 Thus Fatah captured a solid majority on its own, while the broader bloc it commanded won more than three-quarters of the seats-67 of 88. Moreover, about half of Fatah’s 50 spots went to veteran PLO-Tunis officials who had entered the territories with Arafat, while the remainder were mostly local candidates drawn from the ranks of Arafat’s most loyal boosters.159
Since his victory at the polls, Arafat has continued to run the PA precisely as he did before elections. The PA police force has expanded apace, and today has more than 50,000 members. The government payroll has bloated further, and remains a patronage machine in which all important decisions are made by one man. Though Council members, in a rare display of independence, succeeded in passing a comprehensive basic law that would provide a constitutional framework, Arafat has refused to sign it, and the Palestinian Authority has at no point had either a discernible constitutional or legal framework, or anything like an independent judiciary. The media have continued to function as an adjunct of the government, while human rights groups-with a few notable exceptions, including organizations founded by a-Sourani and Eid-have remained weak and ineffective.160
More than three years have gone by since the second set of Palestinian elections were supposed to be held-Arafat and the Council were chosen for terms that were to end on May 4, 1999-but no new elections have been called.161 Ostensibly, the reason for this delay is that Arafat is waiting for the conclusion of final-status negotiations with Israel. But the real reason is that he was content with the results of his first election, and has not yet seen a reason to face the voters again. Even municipal elections, which were supposed to take place during the summer of 1996, have been delayed for six years; in the very long interim, Arafat has continued to make appointments to local offices himself, without the assistance of the voters.
In light of what Arafat did to secure his election victory and in light of the manner in which he governed before and after elections, it is clear that his standing as an elected leader hardly resembles that of the democratically chosen Western leaders who defend him. Thus the claim that he cannot and should not be replaced can hardly be sustained on the grounds of his democratic mandate or credentials.
What is true is that Arafat has made himself irreplaceable in a very different sense: He has acted successfully to destroy the elements of a pluralistic society that had been present in the West Bank and Gaza, and to mold the Palestinian Authority into a police state and a personal dictatorship. As a result, he has done much to damage the prospects of a viable, alternative leadership emerging. In other words, having succeeded in eliminating his opposition, he is now turning to the democratic world and pleading to stay in power on the grounds that he knows of no one who could replace him.
This argument sounds much like that of the apocryphal boy who kills his parents, and then pleads for mercy from the court because he is an orphan. Of course, it contains a kernel of truth: That is, the boy really is an orphan, and the dictator who eliminates his opposition really lacks an obvious successor. Yet it would be a grave mistake for Western leaders, and especially an American government that seeks to lead the free world, to accept the idea that Arafat’s success in building a dictatorship should entitle him to continue representing the Palestinians. On the contrary, Arafat has long ago demonstrated that his continued leadership is inimical to peace, no less than it is inimical to the Palestinians’ own aspirations for a regime that accords them basic freedoms.
It took Arafat nearly two years to pave the way for the electoral landslide that gave him the counterfeit aura of democratic legitimacy that still clings to him, and he has spent an additional six years strengthening his dictatorship and weakening potential opponents. The process of recovering from the damage he has done during this time will no doubt be a long one. But prolonging the current situation by attributing to Arafat a legitimacy that he does not deserve contributes nothing to that process.
Daniel Polisar is Editor-in-Chief of Azure. During the January 1996 Palestinian elections, he led the observer team of Peace Watch, a non-partisan Israeli organization accredited by the Palestinian Authority as an official elections observer.
Notes… 154. On the adoption of the electoral system for Council races and the impact of this system on the decision of Islamic and left-wing groups to boycott elections, see Polisar, “Electing Dictatorship,” pp. 265-283.
155. On Arafat’s efforts to shape the Fatah lists, and on his behavior and that of other PA officials during the campaign and on election day, see Polisar, Electing Dictatorship, pp. 283-310, and reports of the various monitoring groups cited there.
156. These results are as reprinted in jmcc, The Palestinian Council, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: jmcc, 1998), pp. 49-50. The remaining votes, according to the official results, were invalid.
157. Jon Immanuel, “Arafat Wins 88 percent of Vote; 75 percent of Council to Fatah,” The Jerusalem Post, January 22, 1996.
158. The classification system for assigning nominal independents to the parties is based on my own assessments, which are largely in line with those made by the jmcc in The Palestinian Council, which has become the standard reference on this subject. I am including in the Fatah bloc the single candidate elected on the ticket of the fida party, which ran in an alliance with Fatah.
159. Among the veteran PLO-Tunis officials who won positions were Tayyeb Abed a-Rahim, Nabil Sha’ath, Hakam Bal’awi, Intisar al-Wazir, Fayez Zeidan, and Abu Ala. Among the local loyalists who won seats, the most prominent were cabinet members Saeb Erekat and Freih Abu Medein.
160. On the nature of governance in the Palestinian Authority since the January 1996 elections, see Polisar, “Electing Dictatorship,” pp. 423-474; and David Schenker, Palestinian Democracy and Governance: An Appraisal of the Legislative Council (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000). For an optimistic account of PA governance in this period, see Rubin, From Revolution to State-Building.
161. On the requirement to hold elections by May 4, 1999, see Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” September 28, 1995, article 3, section 4; and Palestinian Central Election Commission, “The Palestinian Council, Its Executive Authority, and the President of the Palestinian National Authority: Institutions and Competences,” December 31, 1995.