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Brown: Asking the wrong questions about Palestinian elections

The hot story this afternoon is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly threatened to quit during a phone call with Barack Obama, because he sees no chance for peace with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.  I doubt anyone believes him, but it sure would shake things up a bit.  More analysis will have to wait, because I'm totally snowed under at the moment.  But in the meantime, my GW colleague and occasional guest-blogger Nathan Brown has sent in this piece questioning the conventional wisdom (mine included) about the importance of Abu Mazen's call for elections in January. Without further ado....

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Asking the wrong questions about Palestinian elections

    by Nathan Brown

On October 24, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree calling for new parliamentary and presidential elections in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza in January 2010. The chance of the elections being held as decreed is virtually nil—Israeli permission is needed for polling in Jerusalem; Hamas’s participation is needed in Gaza. Neither is likely, and for both Israel and Hamas to decide to cooperate is unimaginable in current circumstances.

That has led observers to what seems a natural series of questions: Why did he decide to call for elections now?  Will Hamas agree to run?  What should the US position be? 

But these are the wrong questions. Worse, it is simply the wrong time to be asking questions about Palestinian elections.

Why is it wrong to ask why Abbas decided now?  Because Abbas did not really decide anything—he just postponed things a bit longer.  Nor did he really have much control over the timing of his decree.  Parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 2010 by the Palestinian constitution. (Presidential elections were due last January according to the same constitution but the electoral law suggests the January 2010 date Abbas’s decree mentions).  For elections to be possible, the president has to issue a decree to give sufficient time to arrange them. Had he not issued the decree by drop-dead date of October 25, Abbas would have been making a decision—to postpone them. By issuing a decree (a decree that always can be withdrawn, modified, or simply found impossible to implement) he left open several possibilities that elections will be held, cancelled, or postponed.  So he was not really deciding anything.

But all these legal minutiae about decrees, laws, and constitutional provisions suggest a deeper reason why it’s wrong to focus on the question of why elections are being called now. 

In the Arab world, elections are routine.  It is their cancellation or postponement that has to be explained. As my Carnegie colleague Michele Dunne has reminded me on several occasions, the timing of elections is usually fairly clearly established in Arab laws and constitutions.  On a few occasions—generally if there is extensive international intervention or if there is internal crisis—elections are postponed. But the days of Arab regimes routinely cancelling elections completely is gone.

Can that be? Is the Arab world really so democratic?  Well, no.  The problem is that while the fact of elections seems to be written in stone, the rules by which they are conducted are written on water. Authoritarian rulers constantly tinker with the formal rules, electoral mechanisms, and oversight of voting in order to get the result they want.  Opposition movements beg, bargain, or threaten boycott to get a place on the ballot and a handful of seats.  So some elections occur on what might be called the Tunisian or Syrian model (overwhelming majority for the regime with token opposition) or on the Jordanian and Egyptian model (where the opposition is allowed to win a few more seats but is kept very safely away from a majority).

The Palestinian system used to be little different.  The law for the 2006 elections was tailored to coax Hamas into running while ensuring it would lose.  But it was designed by a leadership famous for short-term thinking, strategic miscalculation, and dysfunctional internal rivalries.  All those defects were on very public display as the law was written.  And so it misfired. 

And that leads us to why it is misleading to ask if Hamas leaders will decide to run.  They can’t, even if they wanted to (which they definitely don’t).  When the 2006 elections led to Hamas’s upset victory, Abbas as head of Fatah threatened to use a series of illegal devices to overturn the result.  The idea seems to have been to keep coming up with new election ideas until a way was found to make sure Palestinians gave the right answer.  Finally, in June 2007 (after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza) he found one that had the virtue of being arguably legal: Abbas issued a new law by decree that not only changed the rules but also all but barred Hamas.

So now we’ve arrived at a position where Palestinian elections really would be different from the Arab norm, if only they could take place.  Because the Palestinian Authority is split in two, both sides have to agree on the rules for elections to go forward. Either side can prevent elections it does not like.  Real elections cannot occur until the two sides come to terms.

And this is why I am claiming that it’s the wrong time for outsiders to be asking about Palestinian elections.  We should not be surprised that the issue has arisen now—these elections have been scheduled for four years.  And we should have been thinking about the issue for that entire period.  We weren’t, and it’s too late now to decide how to react.

When the 2006 elections turned out in a way that we didn’t like—well, that was the time to remind ourselves about the 2010 elections. Instead we worked with Abbas in attempts to short circuit the process in all kinds of ways and wound up helping to break the electoral mechanisms altogether.  There really was a more patient alternative, aimed not on any naïve belief that Hamas would immediately soften but by using the four year interval to make sure that Hamas would have to make a choice between governing and what it calls “resistance”—and also to make sure that the Palestinians had a choice between Fatah and whatever Hamas decided to offer. There were steps we could have taken then: to pressure Fatah to rebuild itself as a party; to make clear to Hamas that it would be judged by its actions and to give it serious benchmarks to meet; to hold the Palestinian Authority together in one piece. We took none of these steps in any serious and sustained way—in fact we worked against each one.  The result was to contribute to the deepening Palestinian split, the horrible economic devastation of Gaza, Fatah’s arrogance and sense that it was the rightful rule.  And it ruined that possibility that January 2010 elections would help (or even occur at all).

It is too late for January 2010 elections to do anything more than seal the split between the West Bank and Gaza and reveal both Abbas’s impotence and Hamas’s obstinacy.  My record as a naysayer is consistent–I’ve argued in increasingly gloomy terms over the past two years that there is no possibility for conflict ending diplomacy now; that real Fatah reforms are unlikely; that Egyptian mediation cannot work without much more international support than is likely; that we are repeating the mistakes we made in Iraq policy in the 1990s; that the vaunted security program and economic improvements in the West Bank augur little for long-term progress; that we need to lower our sights for the present.  That is all negative advice. Is there anything positive that can be done?

Palestinian elections may indeed be part of a solution, but not if they are deployed simply in an opportunistic and short-term manner—that will only rob them of their legitimacy.  A far longer term focus is necessary.  It is too late to turn the clock back to 2006, but it may still be possible to push for at least nominal unity between the West Bank and Gaza and to make eventual elections part of that agreement.  Neither Hamas nor Fatah is ready for fair and competitive elections now, but Fatah’s notorious short-term thinking and Hamas’s optimism that the tide will always eventually turn in its direction might induce both parties to agree to a fair set of elections two or three years from now—that is, beyond the current time horizon.  If the time and the rules are agreed now (a tall order, but not an impossible one) then over the intervening years, both sides would have to turn their attention slowly but surely to presenting a viable program to Palestinian voters.

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