Steering Arafat

AFTER all the perils through which Yasser Arafat has led the Palestinian people, he richly deserves his 88 percent win at the polls in the first-ever Palestinian elections.

Every ''father of his country'' merits the chance to launch the government he has battled so hard to create.

And yet....

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President Arafat will do well to examine the sides of the road over which he is about to pass. There, symbolically, he can see the wreckage of ''fathers'' who slid into one-man rule and machine politics: Nkrumah, Sukarno, Syngman Rhee, Kaunda, Nyerere, Ben Bella, Sekou Toure, Nasser, and more.

The process of wresting control from a colonial power or occupying force demands different skills than the process of democratic nation-building. Paradoxically, Mr. Arafat may be fortunate in having been dealt some tough-minded opposition by the voters who overwhelmingly elected him.

The former chief of the negotiating team in the Middle East peace talks, Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi of Gaza, drew more votes than any other candidate for the Palestinian Council, the new legislature of the nascent State of Palestine. Dr. Shafi has pledged to demand accountability from the Arafat government. Other major vote-getters also promised to guard against machine patronage by Arafat's Fatah faction, which won three-quarters of the seats in the council.

Much work lies ahead before the Palestinian Authority becomes the government of a nation. First, of course, it must continue the difficult bargaining with Israel. That's a must if Mr. Arafat is to connect the scattered polka dots of land he now controls into a viable unified territory.

Second, Arafat must prove his ability to provide the basics expected in any state: clean, paved streets; better schools; improved water and sewerage; consistent policing; fair courts; conditions for attracting businesses and jobs. In all these areas, his practical-minded loyal opposition should help steer this ''father'' away from undemocratic, fatherly patronage.

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