Palestinian legislators set sights on new elections

Lawmakers hope to hold municipal elections in some cities in the next two months

This city is the meeting place for the Palestinian legislative council whose members were elected to four-year terms - and stayed more than seven. Palestinian cities like this one have had municipal elections - but not since 1976.

On a busy street corner, a struggling merchant says the job of Palestinian officials is "to steal the people's money" and drive fancy cars.

A key facet of the Bush administration's road map for returning to Middle East peacemaking has been a demand that the Palestinians undertake democratic reforms.

But the road map's promise to call elections for the 3.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has been kept on hold - a delay for which many Palestinians blame the US as much as Israel. Israel said earlier this week that it intended to withdraw its forces from four cities in the West Bank, but disagreements over negotiations, and a deterioration in the cease-fire have put those plans on hold.

Independent of the ups and downs in the peace process, which collapsed three years ago this September, Palestinian legislators are working to pass an election law and are planning to hold municipal elections in some cities in the next two months.

To many here, calling new elections is a crucial step toward increasing the legitimacy of Palestinian leaders in the eyes of the public, and a major step toward painting a picture of things to come in more democratic colors.

Israel and the US have said they support elections. But many Palestinians say they're frustrated that international backing for the elections has grown more muted since the road map's introduction last year.

"The Americans prevented the elections because the polls showed that [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat will win again," says Mohammed Hourani, a member of the Palestinian legislative council involved in drafting a new elections law. Palestinians say they were keen to set a date but were then put off.

"The Americans asked ... to delay it, until they finished the war in Iraq. We have met many European politicians who said elections are an important step in ... the development of peace, and the US succeeded in stopping them and saying elections must occur at the end of the first part of the road map, and to do that, Israelis must withdraw."

That looks likelier now than it has in months. Palestinians say there can be no elections until Israel pulls out of the areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip it reoccupied or blocked off after an ongoing barrage of suicide attacks against Israelis last year. They argue that road closures, incursions, and the construction of a security wall in the West Bank are also hindering the potential to implementation of the road map.

Israel, for its part, says that the Palestinian Authority is still failing to fight terrorism by cracking down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Muslim fundamentalist groups which, Israeli officials say, are using the cease-fire as a time to rearm and plan new attacks.

Palestinian Authority elections were last held in 1996, when there was no Palestinian legislature. Voting procedures and the nature of the Palestinian legislative council grew mostly out of the Oslo Accords and discussions with Israel. The government at the time, led by the Labor Party, agreed to have Arab residents of East Jerusalem included in Palestinian elections.

Now, the Likud government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says it will not agree to have East Jerusalem on the ballot. Palestinians, who have Jerusalem representatives on the current legislative council, say they would not agree to hold elections without including East Jerusalem.

"We need to solve the question of Jerusalem because we need to vote like we did 1996, and we need the Israelis to agree to it," says Ali Jarbawi, secretary general of the Elections Commission. Meanwhile, he says, the PA does not have the finances to start registering people, which it needs to start doing some six months before elections can begin.

Most important, the PA needs a new law in order to hold new elections, and two drafts currently being debated in the legislative council conflict.

One draft proposed to mirror elections largely after what they looked like in 1996, during which voters chose directly from a numbers of candidates in each electoral district. But another group of Palestinians is arguing for a hybrid system in which voters would be able to cast one vote for a candidate in their local district, and one for a political party. The next elections could thus strengthen political parties to balance the power of the executive branch which, under Mr. Arafat, has wielded most of the authority.

"We believe there is enough of a majority to have a mixed system," says Azmi Shuabi, a council member from Ramallah. "We need to encourage parties to share power, and we want to use elections to accelerate the transformation of Palestinian movements into political parties."

Some say that elections, if held today, would boost Islamic parties opposed to peace with Israel, while others argue that they would increase Arafat's legitimacy. "We have no democracy here. But people are not ready for elections now," says Maher Dahli, who runs a men's clothing shop. "Elections need a better atmosphere." Were a poll held now, he says, despair over peace prospects and the economy could put Islamists ahead of the Palestine Liberation Organization's secular Fatah faction.

Next door, Wael Siori runs a snack shop - hardly his dream after finishing Bethlehem University with a degree in business. He says elections should be held soon, and that he would vote any party with an Islamic agenda. "The PA has no chance to win these elections; they know that they would lose because of corruption," he says.

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