Countries are ruled by various systems, doctrines, and principles, ranging from pure dictatorships to liberal democracies. However, democracy in general, which varies on a spectrum, remains one of the leading systems for good governance around the world, and the one that nations aspire to. In fact, even the sound of the word “democracy” resonates positively from time immemorial, as if at the core of a harmonious symphony. It evokes positive and vibrant reactions from listeners, and galvanizes both young and old in their quest for a life of dignity.
Democracy, however, is not a faultless term that can be used without certain basic pillars supporting it, including the necessary elements of legitimacy and legality. Democracy alone does not inherently shield citizens or minorities from practices that are in violation of human rights principles or other contraventions. These abuses can often be sidelined or even concealed when one discusses the conduct and policies of a democratic country.
Israel, for example, is one of the well-established democracies in the Middle East. Nevertheless, its policies have been violating the human rights of the indigenous Arab minority within its own borders, as well the human and political rights of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Admittedly, these policies were based on decisions enacted in Israel through a democratic process by (majority of Parliament). Unfortunately, all of these violations become blurred by the accolades and emphasis placed on its democratic system. As such, democracy should always be scrutinized and never abused. One must always seek a duality of democracy and legality in governance so that the term “democracy” continues to retain its high moral status in the world.
Elections have been widely regarded as the primary tool and linchpin for effectively implementing democratic systems of government for centuries. However, elections are complex in nature, and they cannot stand on their own without an active involvement in raising the awareness of the public about democracy and the electoral process. To be effective, programs must be made available nation-wide to the general public, and become entrenched at all levels of the educational system, in order to inform the population of its rights, and empower the nation to achieve its aspirations through elections.
In January 2021, the President issued a decree for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections to be held on May 22nd, the presidential elections on July 31st, and finally the formation of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) on August 31st.
The PLC elections are restricted to the 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank (including Jerusalem) and Gaza – namely those living in the areas occupied by Israel in 1967. There are currently over 6 million additional Palestinians living in the diaspora, and they will be represented through another election and/or selection process for members of the PNC. The present discussion is limited to the PLC elections, whose members will likely be a part of the PNC once it has formed. It is too early at this time to discuss the presidential elections, which are still more than three months away.
In Palestine today, democracy has been curtailed for more than 15 years. The last PLC was elected in 2006, and became inoperative as early as 2007 due to the internal Palestinian conflict. Members of the PLC became politically and geographically divided, with a number residing in the West Bank and others in Gaza. Two separate governmental entities were established, and each functioned with no available instrument for conferring or challenging governmental laws or decrees - a real aberration of democracy. With this history in mind, the upcoming legislative elections are of paramount importance to resume proper governance under one house.
Aside from reviving democracy, elections would put an end to the conflict between the two major political parties that separately rule over the West Bank and Gaza; their relations will shift from confrontational to purely competitive. The difference between these two positions cannot be understated.
Democracy is certainly the path that Palestine is committed to following today. More than 93% of eligible Palestinians in the occupied territories registered to vote, and 36 political parties and lists have registered to run in the elections, with approximately 1,400 candidates competing for the 132 seats of the newly anticipated PLC. Approximately 39% of the candidates are 40 years of age or younger and 405 candidates are female. Predictions reveal that the new PLC is set to have a younger composition than the previous one, as well as a higher representation of women.
It is expected that elections in the West Bank and Gaza will be held according to plan, but the greatest obstacles we face will be with the elections in East Jerusalem. The PLO and Israel signed an agreement in 1995 on the modality of elections in Jerusalem. This included campaigning rights of candidates in Jerusalem and the polling rights of Jerusalemites in specified centers in Jerusalem. Prior elections have been conducted under the same protocol. By prior elections, this refers to the legislative and presidential elections of 1996, the presidential elections of 2005 (held after the passing of Yasser Arafat), and the legislative elections of 2006. Regarding the impending 2021 elections, the Palestinian Authority has formally addressed Israel to ensure their commitment to implementing the agreed-upon election protocols in Jerusalem. Until now, the Israelis have not yet responded and the commencement of the election campaigning stage is scheduled to begin in the coming weeks on April 30th. There is therefore still a window of opportunity – albeit a narrow one. East Jerusalem is part of the occupied territories, and our sovereignty in Jerusalem cannot be undermined. Holding elections in Jerusalem is part of the continued struggle between Israel and Palestinians for the actualization of the Palestinian’s legal and sovereign rights in East Jerusalem.
Once the elections are held, the revival of democracy could be a turning point both in Palestine and for our collective future. It will certainly put us on the right path towards proper governance over our own affairs. We should never forget, however, that democracy cannot be sustainable under military occupation – especially if this occupation, akin to an egregious colonization, has been entrenched and institutionalized for over 50 years, strengthened by illegal settlements, annexation of lands, and human rights abuses. Fundamentally, democracy and occupation cannot coexist. The future will be dismal if we only address the issue of elections and democracy without addressing the occupation.
With our democracy on the mend and unity within the country being restored, Palestine would be more empowered and more confident to seek justice and engage with the international community to achieve a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the relevant UN resolutions. The democratic process that we are embarking upon can have everlasting impacts on our future, and we should all rally around the upcoming elections with passion and enthusiasm. It is a chance that we must not miss.
Hanna Nasir, Chairperson
Central Elections Commission