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Palestinian Parliamentary Reform

10 September 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

The Palestinian Parliament convened yesterday for the first time in well over a year.  Chairman Arafat condemned terrorism and called for a halt in attacks against Israel within the 1967 borders (no one believes him), deliberations are taking place over whether to appoint a prime minister (to circumvent Arafat) and sweeping reforms are being proposed.

One over riding reform being discussed involves the electoral system which today is regional and thereby gives overwhelming powers to the wealthy extended families in the urban centers and sectionalizes the population.  These traditional, well entrenched families serve local leadership, financial and militia functions and if united, have the greatest potential for replacing Arafat.  Yet they often have different interests and can work against a unified Palestinian stance since they are capable of running their own economies and holding their own turf.

The suggested reform is to implement a proportional representation where different political parties run candidates and have representatives based on a percentage of the vote.  For instance, in the 88 man parliament, Arafat’s Fatah would get 44 seats if they had 50% of the vote and Hamas would get 22 if they received 25%.  One reformer explained that such a move had to be done in the interest of true democracy.

Interestingly, such a super democratic system is exactly the one existing in Israel today, it is very representative of almost all viewpoints but cumbersome in building coalition governments and parliamentary procedure.  Certain Israeli commentators find it amusing the Palestinians would want to adopt the Jerusalem style democracy.

Irony is one thing, realistic politics is another.  The proportional representation system undercuts the large extended families who often are in conflict with Arafat and the ‘Tunisian’ branch of Fatah who arrived with Arafat after ‘Oslo’.  The traditional families prefer to run their own ‘foreign policy’ and in general have moderate leanings, preferring to cut deals with Israel and keep the place quiet.  And they do not particularly believe in democracy if it drains their power.

Such a reform has the potential of bringing both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the parliament.  In regional elections they would find it difficult to gain a majority in any district but could certainly gain a quarter or third of the overall vote in a proportional set up.  The Islamicists are not represented in today’s parliament as they refused to run candidates in the last elections. 

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s plans for peace making are based on cutting regional deals with the local family leaderships in their different districts.  Foreign Minister Peres had hoped for a united authentic Palestinian leadership under a ‘moderate’ Fatah and Yasir Arafat to implement the Oslo Accords.  Peres’ gamble did not pay off and an ‘end to Oslo’ Sharon policy based on the local family leadership could be a non-starter should such a reform take place.

The reform is supposedly in the interests of democracy.  Obviously the families are against the move, but more importantly Arafat does not want any reforms, certainly not those bringing in a unified opposition with an alternative national leadership. 

Paradoxically, this time Sharon and Arafat are on the same side.