Since the death of Yasser Arafat, many in European capitals and within various circles of Washington have called on the Palestinians to hold elections. Former special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross, for example, recently asserted that to avoid a violent competition for power, elections can become “the mechanism for shaping the Palestinians’ future and determining Palestinian leadership.” Palestinian basic law requires that elections be held 60 days after the death of a Palestinian president. On the surface, elections appear to be a step that will further Palestinian democracy and President Bush’s vision of a free and democratic Palestinian society. In reality, however, the election, scheduled for January 9, 2005, would be part of the smoke and mirrors that is Palestinian politics. It would merely dress an enduring dictatorship with democratic robes.
Even before Arafat’s demise, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queria (Abu Ala) and the new chairman of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), had divvyed up the chairman’s powers amongst themselves. Abu Mazen’s appointment as the central figure of the PLO puts him in control of the most powerful body in Palestinian society. The PLO’s powers remain superior to the institutions of the PA. In his capacity as the chairman of the PLO, Abu Mazen is responsible for all Palestinian foreign affairs and negotians with Israel. His associate, Abu Ala, continues to be the Palestinian prime minister, a position he held prior to Arafat’s death. Since then, however, his powers have been redefined: He now controls all internal affairs of the PA and the mulitplicity of unruly security services. Rawhi Fatooh, a junior political player and the speaker of the parliament, replaced Arafat as the temporary president of the Palestinian Authority until elections are held.
When Arafat was alive, he controlled the powers–and more–now shared by the new triumvirate. He was chairman of the PLO, president of the Palestinian Authority, and head of the largest faction of the PLO, Fatah. It took many years of international pressure to force him to appoint a prime minister. Even when he did, Arafat made certain that his prime minister would remain weak and unable to control any of the security services. A typical example of Arafat’s treatment of his revolving prime ministers is the rumor that he slapped Abu Ala across the face several weeks ago. In response, Abu Ala threatened resignation until it became clear that Arafat’s health was deteriorating. But the multi-tentacled style of Arafat’s reign could not have been maintained by any one of his successors, because they all lack his gravitas. Realizing their unpopularity, they opted to divide and rule.
But the division is not between equals. Abu Mazen and Abu Ala remain the senior partners. They have taken all substantial powers, leaving the position of the president virtually void of real authority. Taking away from the president control over the guns of the security services and the money held in the PA’s entangled accounts has reduced his position to that of a glorified debate-club leader. Elections, now deemed by many in Europe and the State Department as the flood gate for Palestinian democracy (and by extension the renewal of the peace-process), only serve to legitimize Abu Ala’s and Abu Mazen’s unelected and unchecked grip on power.
One could argue that Abu Ala and Abu Mazen could not control the results of an election, that a challenger to their power could win. But these two are attempting to stack the cards in their favor. Even if relatively orderly elections occurred in 60 days, they would not be free and democratic. Abu Mazen, who recently announced his candidacy, is trying to make sure that no one of any real influence will compete against him. Not wishing to look undemocratic, he might find–as Arafat did in the elections of 1996–a single, unknown, and unpopular candidate to “oppose” him. Even if there is a strong opposing candidate, the lack of a free press, the existence of bodies (such as the PLO) that are more powerful than the elected institution, and an insufficient period for the oppositional candidates to organize, these elections will not accurately reflect the will of the people.
The Bush administration, which remains committed to a vision of a free and democratic Middle East, must be certain not to legitimize oppression by endorsing Palestinian elections now. In the process of building a free and democratic society, elections are the last–not the first–step. Elections should come after limits on governmental institutions are in place and the basic freedoms of individuals have been guaranteed. Western recognition of this masquerade of freedom would only serve to strengthen the undemocratic nature of Palestinian society.
Even if elections will renew hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, peace must not come at the price of liberty. Only a free Palestinian society can confront Arafat’s legacy of terror, chaos, corruption, and poverty.
–Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.