Elections can be both more and less than they seem, writes Azmi Bishara
In an age in which an individual from any social class anywhere in the world can grasp the meaning of political freedom, political sovereignty can no longer be expressed without democracy. Nor, it would appear, is it possible to imagine democracy without an electoral process for selecting rulers, whether through elected voting delegates or through direct polls. But elections do not happen in a perfect world: rather, they descend upon us as they are, with all their ills. There is influence, pressure, money, lies, fraud and deception, all used in various ways to manipulate the electorate. In other words, electoral campaigns are an exercise in distorting the will of the people. Deliberate tampering with the polls through such means as removing names or adding fictional names to voter registration lists, altering or forging ballots, or falsifying the tallying of votes, are thus rendered unnecessary. Tampering tends to be the recourse of underdeveloped political forces or rulers that are weak or unable to afford the luxury of costly campaigns. But an election that is free of the first set of ills is a rare bird indeed. One has the strong impression that the recent elections in Ukraine marked a victory of the first set of ills over the second.
But is there any real difference between the two? The first set does just as much to falsify the popular will as the second, and apply in varying degrees to all electoral processes, beginning with the tailoring of the process itself and passing through methods of financing it, the purchasing of votes through direct payments or through promises of jobs or services, control over access to the media, false pledges made and lies and insinuations spread against rival candidates. It happens everywhere, even in the most established democracies. And then of course there is the more recent problem -- US intervention in elections abroad, through ambassadors and other envoys, aid and finance agencies and democracy approval ratings.
Falsifying the popular will by purchasing consciences, spreading lies or warning that votes cast in the wrong direction will call down America's wrath at least recognises the democratic method, regardless of how it is bent to a candidate's advantage. More importantly, voters have some freedom of choice and political forces that want to prevail against this form of falsifying the popular will still have the opportunity to appeal to the electorate's intelligence. The astute voter can escape the first type of fraud in the ballot box, but there is no way his vote can survive direct tampering. Perhaps the results would be the same in either case. But at least honest polls, however dirty the campaigns, entail more developed social mechanisms for managing a society and its political life, mechanisms that include ways of bringing politicians to account for pledges made and then not kept. The second form of electoral corruption, on the other hand, would seem to thrive in a more rudimentarily organised and generally less politically aware society. The difference between the two approaches must inevitably translate into differences in the quality of life.
The debate over whether elections are indispensable to other citizenship rights and whether rotation of authority is a prerequisite for the democratic expression of popular sovereignty is certain to continue for some time. However, apart from purely technical matters, the Palestinian elections have no bearing on these matters, since, unlike national elections elsewhere in the world, these elections were not a manifestation of national sovereignty to begin with.
To regard the Palestinian elections as an expression of sovereignty requires a stretch of the imagination. The notion presumes that the Palestinian people are only the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza and that these could somehow turn a blind eye to the presence of the occupation and the crimes it perpetrated up to the evening preceding the elections. It presumes that it is not important whether major political parties participated or not, that only a third of qualified voters in the West Bank and Gaza registered to vote and that only two thirds of these voted. No one is about to air these subjects at length, no matter how ardently democratically minded observers wave their hands and shout. They were, quite simply, besides the point. The elections were intended to confirm the popular legitimacy of the post-Arafat leadership in the West Bank and Gaza, which areas define the Palestinian people from the perspective of those non-Palestinian forces that were so enthusiastic about the elections because they wanted a Palestinian leadership with a popular rubber stamp for the purposes of negotiations and managing affairs inside the territories -- in that order.
This said, the elections were a political process and those participating were compelled to outline their political views and objectives and to state their apprehensions, leaving the ultimate say to the voter, regardless of the powerful regional and international factors at play. Political parties had a responsibility to stake out their ground. They had to either participate in the elections or, if boycotting them, to clearly delineate their reasons for this form of protest. The political parties should also have felt compelled to contemplate the impact of the transition from the PLO and the diaspora to the PA as the primary framework for political life on their power, influence and perhaps very survival. Having failed to engage in such a process of introspection at the time of the first PA legislative elections, Palestinian political forces succumbed to a form of identity crisis that saw them wavering for years between the PA and the Islamist movements.
This week's Palestinian presidential elections were a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming legislative elections, and it would be wise for the Palestinian parties to assess their performance in light of the results. How, for example, did it come about that a high media profile overshadowed a long record of political activism? This is but one of the dozens of questions that the results raise. Political parties cannot survive on their past laurels or on declaring responsibility for a resistance operation from time to time. If they have a policy or a programme to which they subscribe they must lay this before the public. Yet, today, we find that some political parties no longer bother to produce a newspaper, let alone convene popular rallies or other forms of grassroots mobilisation. It would appear that the problem resides in the absence of political party life in the simplest sense. The crucial factor in the presidential elections was not so much the media fanfare as it was the vacuum that filled the media and everything else. Perhaps some would like to believe, or have others believe, that political rallies, newspapers, conventions, lectures and the like are purely conventional devices. That may be true. But no political party can exist without engaging in conventional political party activities. Wheels are conventional, but no car can move without them however state-of-the-art its motor.
The newly elected PA president is being hailed as though he were really a president. At least that is the impression all those congratulations, from the White House on down, seem intent upon creating. But then this is precisely the result the Western world, including Israel, wanted and made no attempt to conceal. Will this international embrace work in favour of the Palestinian cause, or will it be a bear hug? I suspect the latter.
Israel has not budged an inch on the Palestinian question. It still regards Bush's letter to Sharon as a major political achievement. It may be ready to negotiate with the new Palestinian leadership and it may be willing to take some initiates to "alleviate the conditions" of the people (as though they were hostages) in order to facilitate things for the new leadership. But beyond that nothing is open to discussion. Even the simple idea of agreeing to the notion of a ceasefire is out of the question as far as Sharon is concerned. He expects the PA to do everything for him by "eliminating the sources of terror" or by declaring a unilateral truce. In short, any ceasefire is an exclusively Palestinian responsibility. This implies that Palestinian "terrorism" is the cause and Israeli repression the result. And this cause has to be eliminated if the roadmap is to go ahead, or at least Israel's reading of the roadmap. Even the agreement that presaged the new coalition in Israel was not content with regurgitating Tel Aviv's 14 "reservations" on the roadmap; it also included the letter from Weisglass to Condoleezza Rice reminding her of the 14 reservations and her statement to the effect that Washington sympathised with them. Such was the basis of the rapprochement between Sharon and Perez. And this was signed following the death of Yasser Arafat, i.e. following the disappearance of the foremost "obstacle" to peace.
Sharon may be prepared to negotiate, that is true. But far from accommodating the principles of each side, the negotiations he wants are certain to focus almost exclusively on the creation of a Palestinian state and the only margin of diplomatic manoeuvrability he will be willing to accept, even from the US, is that which will serve to persuade the Palestinians to accept the notion of a state and nothing more. There will be no question of addressing such fundamental Palestinian demands as the right of return while, once a Palestinian state is created, any outstanding border issues will be reduced to minor glitches that can be handled between the two "states" through peaceful means. All the US and the Europeans have to do is to convince the Palestinians that this is their only alternative and that once they accept the inevitable their state, created on 40 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza, will be transformed into heaven on earth. And if Sharon cannot get what he wants through an agreement he will repeat the unilateral disengagement ruse without an agreement, but, of course, only if the PA proves itself capable of handling security by monopolising recourse to arms and unifying its security agencies.
The foregoing is only part of what lies in store for the newly elected PA. It will have decide whether or not to read the results of the elections with the spectacles Washington and Tel Aviv are wearing, a reading that tells it that it now has the green light to halt the armed Intifada and lay the groundwork for accepting a Palestinian state in exchange for keeping the final status questions of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees and borders pending indefinitely. Or it can decide to interpret the election results as a partial mandate to administer the affairs of Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza and to negotiate with Israel without abandoning the principles of relative justice and fairness. This interpretation will also entail working to unify the ranks of the PA and Palestinian society so as to complete the mandate, and working to unify the Palestinian struggle in a manner that permits Palestinian society to live and develop even under the most arduous circumstances until we realise a truly just, permanent and comprehensive solution.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Elections can be both more and less than they seem, writes Azmi Bishara