Democracy Pits Arafat Against His Better Self

THE credibility of the first Palestinian elections, scheduled for Jan. 20, is on the line following a series of crackdowns on critics by Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Arafat, as PLO chairman, is being seen as anything but democratic in both controlling the election and running for president of the new Palestinian Council being elected.

Some international observers and intellectuals have lost sympathy for Arafat. "The problem is that we are dealing with an authoritarian regime trying to consolidate its power through elections," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Nablus-based Center for Palestinian Research and Studies.

Others, however, such as Kevin Johnson, director of the National Democratic Institute in Jerusalem, says that even a flawed election could make its contribution toward building a Palestinian democracy.

In the past week, the election process has received a series of blows:

*Yesterday, Palestinian police arrested an Arab, Bassam Eid, from the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. Mr. Eid had participated in an international report that exposed widespread bias in the Palestinian media in favor of Arafat and his Fatah faction of the PLO that is fielding most of the 700 candidates in the poll.

*On Saturday, a prominent Palestinian editor, Maher al-Alami of the Arabic daily al-Quds, was freed after a week in detention after he had failed to place a Christmas story praising Arafat on the front page of his newspaper.

*On Tuesday, three senior members of the main opposition group - the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas - withdrew their candidacy as independents, apparently to avoid a split in the organization.

*On Sunday, the European Union Electoral Unit, the 300-member group monitoring the election, criticized the Palestinian Authority - Arafat's appointed council for running self-rule until elections could be held - for shortening the election campaign from 22 to 14 days and expanding the proposed council from 83 to 88 members.

8Also on Sunday, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, a civic education group that is running a preelection monitoring program, said that the timetables of the election law issued by the PA last month had been frequently changed.

The EU criticized the shortening of the campaign period and the expansion of the council.

It also criticized the inaccessibility of the Central Elections Commission chairman, Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian intellectuals, diplomats, and international observers accuse Arafat of using the Palestinian Authority to change election law and manipulate the election in his favor.

"The [PLO] is manipulating its control over the Palestinian Authority in order to design and redesign the election procedures to suit their political needs," says Ghassan al-Khatib, a former PLO negotiator and an official of the Palestine Peoples Party, which is contesting the poll.

Mr. Khatib says that the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, the body controlling the electoral process, was itself in breach of electoral laws, because its composition is not independent, as laid down in the election law. The chairman of the CEC is a member of the PLO Central Committee, and three of the nine commissioners are members of Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO.

Arafat responded to the EU criticism by launching the election campaign on Tuesday, lengthening it by three days.

Mohammed Shtayyeh, general-secretary of the CEC, told the Monitor that the decision to add five seats to the council had been intended to give candidates of Hamas an opportunity to field election candidates.

He rejected charges that the PA was not independent because its chairman was a member of the PLO Central Committee and some of its commissioners were members of Fatah. He pointed to three university rectors and leading lawyers serving on the commission.

Shtayyeh also rejected the EU criticism that the commission chairman was not available. "We work as a team. What are we supposed to do if the chairman is away attending an emergency meeting in another country?"

Asked about the series of complaints, Jiries Atrash, a spokesman for Arafat, said: "These are our first elections. We are making mistakes, but they are not grave mistakes. We are not violating the rules. We have hardly completed the redeployment of Palestinian police in West Bank towns. It is a very short time to prepare for an election."

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