A democratic experiment in Palestine

The Palestinian legislative elections present the paradox of a model election won by an Islamist party under conditions of an occupation that the victorious party is committed to resist. The prime minister- designate of this party, speaking in impeccable democratic terms, commits publicly to rebuilding the Palestinian political order on the basis of pluralism and the peaceful rotation of power. In a place as invested as Palestine by so many different political players and conflicting agendas, what were the conditions that allowed free elections to take place successfully in occupied Palestine as opposed to other Arab countries?

Although the Palestinian situation is singular, the transformations within Hamas are echoed by similar developments in other Islamist political parties in the Arab region that to various degrees have picked up the democratic discourse and are staking their political development on processes of democratic contestation and electoral competition. Broadly, this confidence in entering the democratic field has been made strategically possible because these parties can approach the electoral process having secured a broad social base and constituencies whose aspirations for social and economic justice, as well as a minimum sense of national dignity in dealings with the outside world, they can represent.

In contrast to many Arab regimes whose legitimacy is admittedly thin but that are institutionally entrenched and armed with an array of repressive mechanisms (witness the parliamentary elections in Egypt) that keep them in power, the Palestinian political order established by the Oslo process was fatally flawed. It instituted a dual structure of powers that, in disenfranchising Palestinian citizens of their right of self-determination, ultimately corroded the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority since its accountability was constructed vertically to the Israeli occupation and to the international order. (Hence the constant demands on the PA to fulfill its "peace" obligations.)

The breakdown of the peace process and the fierce Israeli onslaught revealed an "empty space" of power and allowed Hamas to step in. The issues, both national and social, that drive the growth of Islamist parties in the region became intensified under the direct and acute conditions of Israeli occupation. Under such conditions the dismal failure of the PA regime in the paradoxical task of state-building while attempting national liberation meant, in the words of political theorist William Connelly, that a "crack in the very efficacy of power" had taken place. The crisis of a Palestinian political system monopolized by Fateh and riddled with corruption, latent throughout the Oslo years, now came fully out in the open. This opened up the space for a clear articulation of Palestinian demands for reform on which there was across-the-board consensus. The fact that both Israel and the Quartet took up the issue of reform and conditioned progress in the political process on it as a way of bringing Yasser Arafat to heel, should not conceal the fact that the issue was a priority on the internal Palestinian agenda and was widely advocated by all sectors of Palestinian society.

For the external players, especially the US, the demand for reform became one with the declared mission of democratizing the Middle East. It is interesting to recall that the US itself insisted on the elections taking place on time despite the many voices in Fateh who demanded and indeed attempted to get them postponed or cancelled. The US also managed to restrict Israeli intervention in the process. What for the US was meant to showcase a success of its self-appointed mission backfired badly.

Indeed, with the ascendancy of Hamas and the continuing fragmentation of Fateh, the need for the re-legitimation of the political system became a pressing need for President Mahmoud Abbas himself. The elections were the only way that the impasse in the system could be broken. In order to achieve their purpose of legitimating the political order, the elections had to be fair and had to be seen to be fair. In fact, against the organized strength of Hamas, Fateh could not have gotten away with attempts at falsifying the results. It is this confluence of factors that ultimately ensured a fair and free election.

This democratic experiment is fraught with dangers both for Hamas and for Palestinian society. The emergence of Hamas as a successful contender for political power (and ultimately for political hegemony) is dependant on different factors, many outside its own control. The appeal of Hamas lay not simply in its successful combination of a national and religious agenda but at a deeper level stemmed from a standpoint of ethicality that could unite both. Against the corrupt reality of Palestinian politics post-Oslo, they could only win.

However, if this experiment as a democratic one is to succeed, it can only do so through the reformulation of a joint national program that can successfully withstand external pressures and defend Palestinian rights, as well as clearly demarcate the democratic basis of a pluralist society based on equality of citizenship and guaranteed civil freedoms.