March 20 , 2006
Palestinian elections yield unexpected but fair results
Deborah Hakes is communications coordinator in The Carter Center Office of Public Information.
Palestinian parliamentary election results surprised world leaders, international observers and even Palestinians themselves when Hamas won a majority of the seats in January 2006. The Carter Center, in partnership with the National Democratic Institute, sent an 85-member team to observe the election, which was found to be peaceful, competitive and genuinely democratic.
Carter Center observers witnessed an orderly and peaceful election day, with residents showing a clear preference for Hamas candidates even in historically strong Fatah communities. The delegation of observers in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem were led by former President Jimmy Carter, former Albanian President Rexhep Meidani, former Swedish Primer Minister Carl Bildt and former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio.
In the parliamentary election Hamas captured 74 of 132 seats, much better than many analysts’ predictions. While recognizing the concern of many Western nations about Hamas rule, Carter emphasized the need to support the new government.
“During this fluid period in the formation of the new government, it is important that Israel and the United States play positive roles,” Carter said. “Any tacit or formal collusion between the two powers to disrupt the process by punishing the Palestinian people could be counterproductive and have devastating consequences.”
Hamas, a militant group, has created a network of social welfare programs throughout the West Bank and Gaza, which has contributed to the group’s popular support. Hamas candidates also are seen as a change from the corruption-riddled ruling Fatah party, according to many Palestinians.
In the wake of the election, Israel and the United States have led a push to withhold much-needed humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people, arguing that a parliament controlled by Hamas should not be supported. Carter said withholding such aid would be a mistake and would likely alienate the Palestinians, incite violence and even increase Hamas’ domestic influence.
The Carter Center has observed in two prior Palestinian elections: Yasser Arafat’s election in 1996 and the 2004 election of Mahmoud Abbas. The entrance of Hamas candidates in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council brought unprecedented uncertainty and drama to January’s contest.
In its election monitoring, The Carter Center again witnessed a situation that has occurred in all three elections it has observed: Palestinians living in East Jerusalem faced difficulties in voting.
“Because of the competing claims of sovereignty over East Jerusalem, the Israeli government has only allowed a tiny fraction of the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to vote there,” said David Carroll, director of the center’s Democracy Program. “Balloting had to take place in post offices, set up as centers for ‘absentee ballots,’ to be returned to Palestinian election officials in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority government.”
Despite the difficult circumstances of the ongoing conflict and Israeli occupation, Palestinian voters turned out in large numbers in a strong expression of their desire to choose representatives through open and competitive elections. The enthusiasm of Palestinians for the election process was evident throughout the voting districts and was reinforced by the professional and impartial performance of election officials.
A post-election team of Carter Center experts is expected to assess potential areas for future involvement in the region.