Palestinian elections: chance for a model democracy

Headlines proclaim opportunities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following the death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Probably the most prominent stories have dealt with Palestinian elections which, in accordance with law in the case of a presidential vacancy, must take place within 60 days. And in fact a presidential election is scheduled for Jan. 9.

In all likelihood, elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council will follow later in the year, and municipal elections - which saw a strong turnout in an initial 26 small communities last week - will be completed. There are even signals from Israel that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem will be permitted to vote in the January election, as was the case in 1996, in spite of the earlier confiscations of their registration data.

For those who have worked over the years helping Palestinians strengthen their public institutions, the fact that the machinery is in place to carry out elections, as well as to provide other services expected of an efficient and democratic government, comes as no surprise. In fact, elections considered free and fair by the international community were carried out by the Palestinian Authority in those 1996 elections, and it remains one of the handful of governments in the region with a democratically chosen head of state. The development of these institutions has come about in spite of occupation, an economy in a downward spiral, and the deaths of almost 4,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis in the past four years.

Insofar as elections are concerned, 67 percent of the Palestinian voting population was registered during a voter-registration drive in spite of East Jerusalem disruptions in September and October. That's a far higher percentage of registered voters than in virtually all countries in the region, none of which are under occupation; higher than in several long established democracies in Europe; and about the same as in the US.

Registration is important and demonstrates, yet again, the capacity of Palestinian institutions and the democratic will of the Palestinian people. Whether Palestinians are actually able to vote come Jan. 9 and later will depend on their unfettered mobility and lack of intimidation in reaching approximately 2,000 polling stations in the West Bank and Gaza that will be available, as well as their ability to conduct political campaigns.

But it was not within the past few weeks that electoral machinery has sprung into life. As part of the Palestinians' own reform process, which was started in June 2002, electoral reform has been high on the Palestinian public agenda, and in October 2002 a highly respected Central Elections Commission (CEC) was appointed by Mr. Arafat.

By the time of Arafat's death in November, not only had the voter registration process already taken place, but also the CEC had a staff of 300, an established headquarters in Ramallah, a Gaza office, and 16 district offices. It had begun the training of 14,000 registration and polling staff, launched a public outreach and voter-education campaign, developed expertise in information technology for voting security, and put in place data processing machinery.

While campaigns and elections themselves are newsworthy, whether free and transparent or otherwise, free elections would not again be taking place in the occupied Palestinian territory without the less glamorous but essential work that has taken place over the past two years, implemented by Palestinians with assistance from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) with the financial support of Japan and Canada and the expertise of the UN Electoral Assistance Division as well as others.

Only weeks after the CEC was appointed, it was the UNDP that provided and furnished the CEC offices, contributed experts - international, and expatriate Palestinians and national - and provided for the employment and training of key CEC staff. Systems for registration, vote tabulation, and data entry were put into place as well as mechanisms for observer accreditation and voter education. UNDP will also be responsible for establishing and operating a liaison and support unit for international electoral observers for the presidential elections.

In short, if voters are not inhibited from voting, the January Palestinian elections can be expected to be a model of transparency and democracy.

The international spotlight on Palestinian elections will hopefully demonstrate what those who have been privileged to work with the Palestinian people have long known: if only given a fair opportunity, Palestinians have the resolve and capacity to make their new sovereign state a model of vibrancy, democracy, and leadership that stands out in the region.

Timothy Rothermel is special representative of the United Nations Development Program in Jerusalem and has worked with that agency's Palestinian Assistance Program for more than 25 years.

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