Written by: Fadi Al’Asa
Although Palestinians participate in the democratic process only through local elections, those in the Gaza Strip are deprived of this experience as a result of the political tensions and divisions that the Palestinian society has been suffering from since 2006, when the last legislative and presidential elections were held at the national level. Local elections continued to take place in the West Bank fairly regularly, despite the low popular interest in these elections and attempts to violate the laws and regulations in force regarding the conduct of local elections.
In this analysis, I try to shed light on the global democratic experiences at the level of local elections, in order to broaden the horizon in order to develop the holding of local elections in Palestine. This is in order to reach to an electoral system capable of keeping pace with rapid changes, reducing the gaps in the local election law and the effects resulting from it with regard to the levels of political participation of citizens and enhancing the smoothness of the electoral system and the multiplicity of options for citizens in choosing who to represent them in the municipal or village council(s).
The local elections that took place in the West Bank in two phases witnessed a number of developments and events that almost devastated the local communities and threatened their security and civil peace. It also overshadowed the tribal elections in the formation of lists and the emergence of balances of power supported by the family and tribal committees, which is a threat to democratic practice itself when it becomes a tool for consolidating traditional forces at the expense of national, integrative, modern forces.
When reviewing international experiences, it was found that all electoral systems without exception have flaws, and this conclusion was clear from the assumption that there is no perfect democracy, rather, it is up to the elites’ role in developing, improving and transitioning electoral systems to what is better, transforming national consensus into practices that are learned from the history of practicing democracy at its various levels. The lesson in modernizing systems is based on enhancing the advantages and minimizing the impact of disadvantages on local electoral systems.
The most important conclusion of these experiments is also centered on the fact that local elections came as the last series for the development of democratic systems. Its aim was to enhance the representation of the interests and voices of citizens at all levels, whether at the level of the village, city, province or state, up to representation at the national level. Therefore, the local elections came as a development of the democratic systems that were practicing their democracy at the national level. As a result, the relationship between the general and local elections is a direct relationship, to the extent that the development and regularity of the general elections is reflected in the extent of development in the local elections and not the other way around. Fragmenting it or adopting one level without another is considered a destruction and regression of the democratic experience.
International experiences in local elections, especially in European countries, have shown an interest in evaluating the laws and regulations for local elections based on criteria, the most important of which is achieving ease. As the electoral system takes into account the importance of facilitating citizens to understand the electoral system to encourage participation, and takes into account the educational, social and economic level of the different societal groups. This standard was developed for the electoral system in eastern European countries after they emerged from the umbrella of the Soviet Union in the nineties of the last century. The second criterion is related to the permanence and regularity of the electoral process on locally approved dates and is not related to the desire of a party or majority to disrupt the elections. The third criterion is related to the encouragement of pluralism, as pluralism is considered to encourage the right to choose and increase the options for citizens to choose their representatives.
The other matter is related to the electoral system adopted at the local level. The individual system was the most common in the world, especially in Europe and America, as they are pioneering countries in the field of liberal democracy, where the number of seats required for the local council is determined in relation to the number of residents, and the levels of local government vary in each city, town or province according to the number of its residents. It is worth noting that the number of seats decreases the higher the level of representation, where the municipal council has more seats than the district council. The relationship between the different levels is organized according to competence in the policies and services emanating from each competence and the powers of each council at the local level.
The advantages of the individual election system are summarized in that it depends on the direct relationship between the candidate and the voter, and facilitates the process of holding him/her accountable for implementing his/her electoral promises. The individual system is often adopted in societies that are relatively small in terms of population. By withdrawing the individual system, various visions emerge at the local level that stimulate the study of the development and advancement of local communities. Just as the individual system has advantages, the disadvantages of this system emerge at the same time in the formation of local loyalties and are mostly of a tribal, ethnic or religious nature.
As for the list system, it is relied on in cities where there is political and societal pluralism. Most of the formation of lists depends on the party system, as alliances are formed between different parties that include multiple movements, activists and politicians in lists to compete for the available seats. Each list has a clear electoral program. In major cities, these elections are comparable in importance to the parliamentary elections, where one of the tasks of the municipal council is to submit proposals for policies and legislation at the city level. Amongst the advantages of this system are the priority of the public interest over factional interests, the activation of multiple political alliances, the importance of party programs and their ability to develop and modernize, in addition to the emergence of political pluralism and awareness-raising debates through campaign activities that rage during the electoral period.
As for the disadvantages of this system, they can be summed up in the fact that political parties have the ability to reduce the chances of talent in managing municipal councils. Citizens’ choices may be determined on a partisan basis without considering other options, and the list system may form through which unstable coalitions may collapse at any moment when there is a dispute over the approved program of the local institution. Accountability becomes more on a partisan basis rather than on the candidate himself/herself.
International experiences also show the proportional electoral system adopted at the local level, as this system is one of the oldest electoral systems in the world, and was first applied in Belgium in 1889. It is currently applied in more than 60 countries around the world, and justice is considered the most important characteristic of this system. When the number of seats obtained by political forces is proportional to the percentage of their attendance in elections at all levels, there is harmony in the distribution of seats, whether at the parliamentary level or at the level of local bodies. There are two types of full and approximate proportional representation, and this system depends in its components on the majority system. This system needs a direct link between local and general elections, as well as geographical unity for all components of the state.
A review of the electoral systems and their diversity in the world may be beneficial to the Palestinian experience in their local elections. Also, reviewing the electoral system for local elections may be an important matter by addressing it according to the regions and the diversity of the societal groups that make up the Palestinian society. Dividing the levels of local government in Palestine is a matter that must be raised again. The application of the same electoral system in all communities may be a democratic practice that does not reflect what is desired, as previous elections witnessed obstacles in forming lists in small villages. This calls for attention to the adoption of the mixed system rather than the closed list system, and to give the public the opportunity to choose the mayor by direct vote.
The review of the local electoral system in force in Palestine falls on the shoulders of the Palestinian elites, parties, institutions, unions and other societal and political parties. They must all be involved in collective dialogue in order to develop an electoral system capable of dealing with variables and at the same time able to take into account the differences between the Palestinian social groups.
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and not necessarily the opinion of the Association or donor.