Palestinian vote pivotal to freedom Will government be authoritarian or democratic?

September 19, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Palestinians will hold a general election in 10 months that will determine if their new autonomous government will be a model of democracy for the Arab world, or something far short of that.

Almost lost in the excitement over the accord signed with Israel is the significance of this election, the first-ever general election by Palestinians for their own government.

"We've been talking about democracy for a long time. Now we really have to practice it," said Hanna Siniora, chairman of the European Palestinian Chamber of Commerce.

The agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization calls for an election of a Palestinian Council to be held by next July. Arab voters throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank -- including East Jerusalem -- are to participate.

The secretly negotiated pact was a surprise to the Palestinian groups that were making arrangements for autonomy. They were working at the leisurely pace dictated by the public Middle East negotiations and now must hustle to set up a new government and the elections.

Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, a Jerusalem academic helping in the planning, said Palestinian observers will be dispatched to watch the coming national elections in Germany and maybe the one in Pakistan. Somewhere within that range may be the model for the Palestinian election.

"There is a huge menu before us," he said.

The choices are not simply technical, although those details need to be sorted out, too. The election may set the course for the kind of interim government -- and ultimately a permanent government -- that will rule the Palestinians.

Among the questions: Will this council be a true legislative body, or simply a rubber stamp for the PLO? Will it get the authority promised to it by the Israelis? Will Yasser Arafat run for election to the body?

The agreement envisions some form of democracy, akin to that of Israel.

But the existing Arab model is one of authoritarian rule; most parliaments that exist in the Arab world are weak or powerless fronts for a strong ruler.

That ruler could be Mr. Arafat. His intentions remain unclear. He has bristled recently at suggestions that he will have to trade his status as the leader of a revolutionary movement for more municipal chores such as organizing garbage collection and filling potholes.

But to stand aside while others take the lead in the Palestinian Council might compel him to share some of the power he is clearly loath to relinquish.

"I don't think Arafat will be the chairman of the council. I think he will wait until he can be president of the Palestinian state," said Ali Khalili, managing editor of Al-Fajr, a defunct Jerusalem newspaper that is resuming publication because of the coming of autonomy.

"He's the George Washington of our society. His place in history is safe," said Mr. Siniora.

Talks to determine details

Israel had wanted to limit the Palestinian Council to a small administrative body. Palestinians wanted it to resemble a parliament with legislative powers.

In the agreement, the Palestinians seem to have gained the most; it gives the council clear legislative powers over the areas of autonomy granted by Israel.

But details of the council's shape, authority and manner of election must still be negotiated between Israel and the PLO.

"We were talking about 120 members. Israel was talking about 20 to 25. Which will it be?" said Mr. Siniora.

And will the election rules permit proportional representation, or will it be a winner-take-all system?

Proportional representation may encourage participation of the PLO's chief rival in the territories, the Hamas Muslim fundamentalist group. Despite their vocal opposition, "they have made it very clear they want a role in the election," said Mr. Abdul-Hadi.

He and others argue it is better to include opponents like Hamas within the council rather than have them attack it from the outside. But there is no guarantee the PLO will embrace such democratic principles.

Leaders of the PLO have spent a quarter-century outside the territories directing a resistance movement of guerrilla fighters. When they did have quasi-governmental control -- over parts of Jordan until 1970 and Beirut, Lebanon, until 1982 -- their authoritarian grip was hardly one of moderation.

"I hope they will avoid the mistake of Lebanon, and try to prove they are wishing to build a new nation of equality and liberty," said Nasser Nashashibi, patriarch of an old and important Jerusalem family.

Absorbing democracy

Ironically, he noted, Palestinians here have come to appreciate the freedoms of Israel, even if they have not fully shared in them.

"Palestinians here have absorbed the air of freedom and democracy that they witnessed in the enemy's camp. They have benefited a lot from what they have learned from the Israeli democracy," said Mr. Nashashibi.

"You can feel it on the street. They have become free-thinkers, obstinate, self-confident. They stick to their ideas.

"I hope the newcomers will understand the mentality of those who have lived under the occupation for 25 years."

Many worry about this clash between the Palestinians who will come from the "outside" and those who have lived here.

They wonder if Palestinian figures from the territories, such as Faisal al-Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, will be shunted aside by PLO officials from Tunis.

Equally worrisome are the groups within the territories who refuse to participate in the election and reject the whole concept.

Even pragmatists such as Mr. Abdul-Hadi predict there will be violence intended to disrupt the elections.

"There will be struggles for power, between insiders and outsiders, between insiders and insiders, and between outsiders and outsiders," he said. "That is part of the game."

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