By: Dr. Bahjat Abuzanouna
After the Oslo Agreement of 1993, the first ever multi-party elections took place in the Occupied Territories. These generated much enthusiasm among Palestinians, who at last expected to practise real democracy in all its aspects, such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, participation in decision-making, the rule of law, implementation of human rights, as well as civil and political rights protected by the constitution. It was also expected that independent and professional media institutions would be established in order to play their role as a fourth estate and cooperate with civil society organizations to prepare for building a new state. This altered political situation has encouraged interested researchers to study the nascent democracy in Palestine.
Despite continuing political instability in the Palestinian territories, democracy there is taking small but steady first steps. However, to study democracy in such a complex situation, many issues have to be taken into consideration, such as the difficult circumstances that the Palestinians live under, which is represented in the complicated socio-political situation, the troubled and still unfolding peace process and the reality of the Israeli occupation. There is no doubt that the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not exercise full sovereignty to implement democracy in a meaningful manner. This is, in part, due to the external pressure that is constantly imposed on the Palestinian Authority by Israel and the international community. Operating under such pressures has made the PA little more than a docile and dependent entity, unable to implement its commitments towards democracy and human rights. Soon after acquiring power, it started to impose censorship and restrictions over freedom of expression, and commit violations against human rights. This has led to the vanishing of the opposition groups and eroding the power of the adversarial media – both considered vital for a healthy democracy.
In January 1996, Palestinian elections took place, in which 88 members of the legislative council and the president of the Palestinian Authority were elected. Among Arafat’s many opponents were the Islamist groups, particularly strong in the Gaza Strip, inspired by and under the influence of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic parties, led by Hamas, opposed Arafat and the Oslo Agreement he signed, thus delaying the elections. However, the elections were conducted 18 months later than planned. As a result, Arafat became the first President of the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat was for decades seen all over the world as ‘Mr. Palestine’. His death marking an end of an era of Palestinian history. Within weeks of the death of the most popular Palestinian leader, presidential elections took place in the Palestinian territories – on January 9, 2005. Mahmoud Abbas won the elections and became the Palestinian Authority President. Despite the public support they had got, Hamas and Islamic Jihad boycotted the elections. However, a year later, in January 2006, when the elections for the Palestinian parliament were held, Hamas changed its strategy and announced its participation. They won many seats and thus gained the majority within the Palestinian parliament. Within the faction-ridden Palestinian politics too, the rise of Hamas and its huge public support was viewed with alarm.
Implementing electoral democracy against the backdrop of such a politically-fraught environment is extremely difficult. Political analysts argue that in order to have a democratic political system in Palestine, it is important to integrate the Islamic movements such as Hamas into the political process. Ideological differences are healthy in a democracy and contribute towards building a liberalized and pluralist political system. However, electoral politics has instead exacerbated tensions and the two parties – Fatah and Hamas – have monopolized the political decision-making in their spheres of influence (West Bank and Gaza, respectively) and prevented other factions participating in democratic processes. Each party has suppressed the others’ voices, thus undermining key aspects of democracy.