President Bill Chace freely admits that he is no expert on election monitoring or emerging democracies. Invited by former President Jimmy Carter to observe elections in Palestine Jan. 15-22, Chace said the main reason he made the trip was "to make a statement that Emory is very interested in extending its international presence and understanding." Chace and Carter were among about 250 observers coming from around the world to observe the elections.
"I went to Palestine," Chace said, "to try and understand more completely, and in depth, the activities of The Carter Center; to help broaden the international reach of the University; and to deepen my understanding of the Palestinian state of affairs."
The Carter Center's election monitoring efforts were divided into three segments: Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Palestinians gave Yassir Arafat, longtime leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), an overwhelming victory, with 85 percent of the vote.
Chace said he was astonished at seeing nothing of Jewish Israel on his trip except for a dinner one evening with Israeli officials. "I essentially saw the events only through the prism or lens of the Palestinian perspective," he said. "This was their election, and a very proud and moving spectacle it was."
The irony of an election by a people without sovereignty was not lost on Chace, however. "When we vote, whether we are voting in Fulton County or DeKalb County, in the state of Georgia or even in a national election, we are voting with the full conviction that we are a sovereign people," he said. "When we vote, our word will therefore be felt in the process and in the electoral return. But what I observed was a very interesting and strange phenomenon in which Palestinians were elected but do not enjoy sovereignty. Ultimately the Israeli government holds full veto power over the results."
The elections in East Jerusalem, for example, were held under full military and police observation, Chace said. The world will judge the elections as either a favorable or unfavorable step "by virtue of what happens next."
Voting for the first time ever was no easy task for many Palestinians, Chace said. While observing the elections, he asked a young professional couple about the low voter turnout in the area. The couple pointed out that each voter was being videotaped by the Israeli army as they cast their votes. When President Carter subsequently questioned an Israeli soldier about the videotaping, they told him it was necessary to videotape the voters so that if violence broke out they would know who was responsible.
"We would rather have more army, fewer voters and less violence," one soldier said, "than less army and more voters and violence."
"That's a hard formula for Americans to work through," Chace said, "but I think it is very revealing."
In spite of the uncertainties still to be faced by the Palestinian people, Chace still believes that "the democratic process was largely fulfilled," as evidenced by the meticulously controlled and observed voting process. "It's a powerful thing to see a people or a person vote for the first time in his or her life," he said. "I saw some very elderly and some very young people voting. There was apparently, at least in my eyes, an equal proportion of men and women voting. Even the people running the elections, that is, the people who marked off your name, took your identification card, and made sure that you were the person on the roll, also seemed to be equally divided between women and men. So one could say that this was the beginning for a people who have never before had this franchise."
The Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs sponsored the election-monitoring mission, which was led by Carter and former Polish Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka. The stated purpose of the mission was to demonstrate international support for democracy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to promote public confidence in the electoral process, and to assess the electoral process in relation to Palestinian law and international norms.
In addition to Chace and members of the Carter family, others making the trip to Palestine included: Ken Stein, political science professor at Emory and a Carter Center fellow; Harry Barnes, director of The Carter Center's Conflict Resolution and Human Rights Programs; and Robert Pastor, fellow and director of The Carter Center's Latin American and Caribbean Program.