When it comes to safeguarding his power, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat certainly does not waste time. Less than 48 hours after US President George W. Bush's speech on Monday calling for a change in the Palestinian leadership, senior PA officials announced yesterday that Arafat would run for reelection in January.
Speaking to reporters, PA Minister Saeb Erekat said, "President Arafat officially declares today that the election of the president of the Palestinian Authority and the election of the Palestinian legislative council will be held in January 2003." Erekat also stated that Palestinian municipal elections would be held for the first time in March.
The timing of the move, to be sure, was not coincidental, as Arafat obviously decided that he needed to counter the mounting pressure on him to step aside.
With Bush reportedly planning to push for Arafat's removal at the upcoming G-8 Summit, Arafat undoubtedly is growing concerned about his waning political relevance. But, as any good dictator knows, the best way to crown yourself with an aura of legitimacy is to turn to "the people" and that, it appears, is precisely what Arafat has decided to do.
The danger, of course, is that many in the international community will nevertheless fall prey to this transparent ploy, naively assuming that the Palestinians will indeed be given a free and fair opportunity to elect themselves a representative leadership. If past Palestinian electoral shenanigans are any indication, though, next year's balloting is unlikely to be a model of democracy in action.
For, back in January 1996, the PA held elections, in which Palestinians were to choose members for the legislative council as well as vote for the one who would serve as their rais, or chairman. In an illuminating essay in the summer 2002 issue of the journal Azure, Dr. Dan Polisar, who served as an officially accredited observer of the 1996 Palestinian elections, notes that Arafat took a series of steps to quash any opposition and assure himself an overwhelming victory at the ballot box.
Polisar notes that Arafat adopted an electoral system for the legislative council that was deliberately titled in favor of candidates from Fatah. PA police were used to intimidate candidates running against Fatah nominees, and illiterate voters were often "assisted" in filling out their ballots by PA and Fatah loyalists.
Arafat clamped down on human rights organizations and activists, seeking to silence any criticism they might level against him, and, writes Polisar, "Arafat and his lieutenants also ensured biased newspaper coverage during the campaign." By contrast, "Critics and competitors of the PLO were blacked out, as were stories about PA corruption and human rights abuses." Hence, concludes Polisar, "The result was that the media, which serve in democracies as a check on government, acted in Arafat's PA as the government's most loyal cheerleader and a check on any potential opposition." Needless to say, there is little reason to suspect that Arafat has turned over a new, more democratic leaf in the intervening period. The Palestinian media remain pliant and docile, and the PA is widely viewed as a corrupt and despotic regime, one in which human rights are routinely trampled upon. The rule of law is virtually non-existent in the areas under Palestinian control, as the public lynchings in recent months of suspected collaborators with Israel have clearly demonstrated. In fact, there is every reason to believe that, if the elections go through as planned, they will once again violate, rather than uphold, even the most basic of democratic norms.
More generally, though, it is worth recalling that elections are not necessarily indicative of democracy. Indeed, though Saddam Hussein also conducts "elections," one would hardly consider him to be a leader of the free world. Elections, after all, are a matter of process, and like any tool, they can be used or abused. They are a prerequisite of democracy, but the reverse is not always the case.
So, while Arafat may be determined to put on a Potemkin village-type of balloting in January, it is essential that the world make clear to him that they won't be so easily taken in by the performance. Without a free press, free speech, freedom of assembly, and various other safeguards, the Palestinian elections will amount to little more than a coronation and an illegitimate one, at that.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post