Palestine National Council – will there be reform + universal elections? Fatah politicos may not endorse reform proposals

Part of the reform that some Palestinians have demanded, since being galvanized by Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square a year ago [January 25], has been their call for universal elections among all Palestinians wherever they are, on the basis of one person, one vote, for a new Palestine National Council [PNC], the PLO’s [Palestine Liberation Organization] parliament.

The idea may have been first circulated by Mamdouh Aker, a Ramallah medical doctor who was appointed by Yasser Arafat to found and head a then-new body, the Palestinian Independent Citizens Commission on Human Rights.

This commission, which makes annual reports compiling complaints it has received from Palestinians about abuses of their human rights, is now housed in its own office building basically just across the street from the back [service] entrance to the Palestine Legilative Council in Ramallah.

Aker told me in an interview in his office in this building in Ramallah that he had circulated the idea for first-time universal elections in an article he had written in Arabic in January 2010, and posted on one of the several active Arabic-language forums [including the Fatah Forum]. The article caught a great deal of attention, and was adopted by the new grouping of young Palestinians — a significant number of whom had grown up and gone to school in the U.S., and who were now back “home”, finishing university studies, and beginning to become active in trying to change the political situation which they regard as a hugely embarrassing stalemate. This group came together in support of the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square [the first big one was held on January 25 last year] against human rights abuses by the Mubarak regime. But it was not until mid-March that the Palestinian demonstrators [which I will call “Manara Youth”, for lack of a better term to describe this new, loose, coalition] were able to hold their first relatively unmolested demonstration in support of what had then become known as the “Arab Spring”.

Aker told me, in our meeting, that he was advocating elections to revive and reform the important PNC on the basis of one-person, one-vote in almost every place in the world where Palestinians can be found — with one possible exception: the Palestinians who had become citizens of Israel, who he said should maybe not participate.

The idea of reforming the PNC is a very interesting approach.

The PNC is — at least, conceptually, and theoretically –the chief legislative body of the PLO, which is recognized at the UN as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. The last time anybody counted, it seemed to have some 679 members — some have since passed away. A partial meeting of a “rump PNC” [not many more than 200 or so members were able to show up] was convened in the Ramallah Presidential headquarters, or Muqata’a, in late August 2009, after the Sixth General Conference of Fatah that was held for over ten days earlier in August in Bethlehem.

It is the PNC, led by Yasser Arafat, which declared an independent Palestinian State at a meeting held in Algiers in November 1988 — a decision which was the basis of the “UN Bid” deposited by Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, at UNHQ in New York on 23 September, asking the UN Security Council to recommend full membership in the United Nations for the Palestinian State.

However, at a PLO Christmas dinner in Bethlehem organized for journalists who report on this area, Fatah/PLO official Mohammed Shtayyah said, in response to my question, that while there would be elections for a new PNC — and that this was now under discussion with Hamas in reconciliation talks — these coming PNC elections would not be by universal ballot, as the reform proposals clearly specify. No.

[Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to conduct all elections — some of which have already been scheduled, and then cancelled, more than once — at the same time. The date of these elections might be by 4 May, 2012 — or they might be later, if agreed, Palestinian officials say breezily. These elections are supposed to be for the President of the Palestinian Authority — as the mandate of Mahmoud Abbas, elected PA President in January 2005, ran out either in January 2009 or January 2010, depending on one’s legal analysis. At the same time, the elections are also supposed to be for the Palestine Legislative Council, which operates only in the West Bank and Gaza. Local/municipal elections are also due to be held. And, for the first time, Abbas indicated, elections for the PNC would be held at the same time. All these elections are supposed to happen together. This would be most efficient…]

But, what Shtayyah told journalists in Bethlehem in December is that there would be elections for the PNC as there always have been. And, he explained, that means: elections within all the unions that had allocated seats in the PNC [such as the engineers union, the writers union, the womens union, the students union], and elections within national groupings [such as the American Palestinian “community”, and among the Palestinians of Kuwait, etc.]…

Shtayyah’s remark was very surprising — as it flies in the face of the reform proposals.

The only concession is that there would be elections, at the same time as the national and local elections in the occupied Palestinian territory — but within all the former instances which are now regarded as, let’s say, passe, or not entirely representative nowadays.

Shtayyah is now, adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, new participant in some of the attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, elected [in 2009] member of the very important Fatah Central Committee [after this election he was required, by a decision of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, to resign the PA Ministerial post he held], but Shtayyah is still in charge of PECDAR [set up in the immediate aftermath of the Oslo Declaration of Principles].


The PNC is quite distinct from the Palestine Legislative Council [PLC] which was set up as an organ of the Palestinian Authority [PA] formed through negotiations between the PLO and Israel under the Oslo Agreements that were signed starting in September 1993.

The PA and its PLC are clearly subsidiary bodies of the PLO — though some high-ranking PA officials are also leaders of the PLO.

Mahmoud Abbas is both the head of the PLO and the once-elected President of the PA. Abbas has also been confirmed as the leader of the largest Palestinian political movement, Fatah — and thus holds all three reins of Palestinian political power.

So far, there have only been two sets of elections for the PA’s PLC, in 1999 and in 2006. In the 2006 elections, following an agreement in Cairo in 2005 that Hamas would join the PLO [this agreement is still under discussion, which has recently become reactivated], Hamas was persuaded, despite its objections to the Oslo Accords, to run a slate of candidates under a new political grouping, the Change + Reform party. U.S. President George W. Bush agreed, and insisted that the Hamas-backed political grouping should participate in the 2006 elections.

Then, to almost everyone’s surprise, Hamas won a majority of seats — some 66% — in the PLC elections. And reprisals, both from a highly insulted and disgruntled Fatah movement, and from the Quartet and the major international donors, began. The Quartet imposed three conditions that Hamas must accept [(1) recognition of Israel; (2) an end to “terrorism”/”armed resistance”; and (3) adhesion to all agreements endorsed by the PLO, including the Oslo Accords].

Israel then arrested most of the Hamas-affiliated members of the then-newly-elected PLC in the West Bank [Israel had unilaterally “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip in September 2005], so many that achieving a quorum for meetings became impossible.

Meanwhile, Hamas wanted recognition of its electoral victory in the PLC, and demanded an equal percentage of seats or representation in the overall PNC [something like 66% or so of the seats in the PNC] while Fatah choked, and refused to consider alloting Hamas anything more than 20 – 25%.

Now, Fatah and the PLO [still not including Hamas] is saying, let’s go to new elections, and see what the Hamas percentage will be.

Their working assumption is that Hamas will get many fewer votes than it did in 2006.

It does not envisage the possibility that Hamas might win more … and if that should happen, the outcome is totally unpredictable.

Israel and the U.S. [though in an election year of its own] would have important impacts on the outcome of the possible Palestinian elections this year.

If one believes in elections at all, it is hard to argue that this mess was caused by “allowing” elections to take place in 2006… [and, the question has to be asked: if elections have to be “allowed”, can they be considered free and fair, democratic elections?]

But, a good case can be made for arguing that the real mess was caused by the big powers reacting massively, punitively, to Palestinian elections in 2006…

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