The retraction of Palestinian democracy

Palestinians have, for years, prided themselves for espousing and implementing democratic values. Palestinians joined the revolution and its various forums on the basis that it was founded on the concept of sharing in the national decision making. The Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestinian people’s parliament in exile, was often displayed as a shining example of Palestinian democracy. Palestinians in various communities would either elect or agree on representatives to this national forum. Student unions, women’s organisations and various professional societies all elected their representatives, who would send delegates to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) highest representative body.

With the Oslo process, the democratic ethos continued with the election of presidential and legislative councils. Elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council were also automatically members of the PNC as representing Palestinians under occupation.

Perhaps the height of Palestinian democracy was displayed when the pro-Hamas Change and Reform list won 75 seats out of the 132-seat council and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas invited the list’s leader, Ismael Haniyeh, to establish a government, which witnessed a seamless transfer of power.

But from this point on, the democratic process started to turn sour. The international community refused to recognise the Haniyeh administration and made sure that the signature of its finance minister was not recognised by any country. Meanwhile, pro-Hamas militants were unhappy with the idea of sharing power with President Abbas and began a violent campaign to oust his presidential guards in the Gaza Strip. These June 2007 events started the deepest split within Palestinian society that has continued till now.

Since then, both the Hamas government in Gaza and Abbas’ administration in the West Bank began rounding up activists of their opponents and restricting each other’s public activities.

Earlier in December, President Abbas announced that the unilaterally-established constitutional court had ruled to dissolve the 2006 legislative council, whose term ran out in January 2010, and for new legislative elections to take place within six months. No talk was made by the court or by President Abbas about the possibility of presidential elections in the future. Abbas and his Fateh movement have consistently said that they support having both presidential and legislative elections throughout Gaza and the West Bank once the split is ended and the reconciliation agreements agreed to in various locations are actually implemented in full.

Few political pundits, legal experts or human rights organisations found anything positive in the court’s decision, of which many question its legitimacy and consider as an instrument in the hands of President Abbas and his Fateh movement. Naturally, Hamas, whose electoral legitimacy is largely the result of the 2006 elections, felt betrayed by the dissolving of the legislative council. The last speaker of the council, Aziz Dweik, attempted to hold a press conference outside the legislature in Ramallah, but was prevented to do so by the Palestinian police. A spokesperson of the West Bank police has stated that as a result of the constitutional court’s ruling, there are no more members of the legislative council. The deputy speaker Ahmad Bahar held a symbolic session for council members in Gaza and insisted that the constitutional court is illegitimate and that its decision is undemocratic.

“Undemocratic action” was the term that was used this week by Abbas’s loyalists, who were complaining about the fact that Hamas’s security in Gaza has rounded up Fateh activists and barred their attempts to hold a public event to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the inauguration of the Fateh movement on January 1, 1965.

Naturally, the accusation by Hamas or Fateh of their opponents of being undemocratic rings hollow while they are acting in contradiction of basic democratic values. The idea of one side negating the other and the refusal to accept the concept of power sharing shows how far Palestinians have departed from the democratic values that had been one of the movement’s attractions.

It is true that one should not compare the actions and policies of Hamas with those of the PLO-led leadership. Hamas’ revolt and refusal to respect the basic governance principles that led them to power should not be equitably compared with some of the undemocratic practices of the Abbas administration. But even if one side is less democratic than the other, that does not justify its undemocratic practices. As the saying goes, two wrongs do not make a right, and responding to undemocratic actions with undemocratic responses does little to break out of the current cycle.

The current undemocratic atmosphere, which is perpetuated by the absence of a representative legislature that can hold the government in check, has allowed for undemocratic practices to take root. Such an absence of principles quickly filters to the security apparatus, as well as the judiciary. No doubt that the continuation of one-party rule has helped such autocratic practices thrive. But insisting on basic principles guaranteeing individual rights for expression and the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and a free press should not be tied to the split. The people of Palestine, struggling to be free of occupation and its repression, refuse to have their own leadership, whether based in Gaza or Ramallah, carry out such undemocratic acts.

Palestinian journalist, former Ferris Professor at Princeton U., established @AmmanNet. Contributor to

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