By Timothy Rothermel, Special, Representative of UNDP in Jerusalem
Headlines proclaim opportunities in the Israeli Palestinian conflict following the death of Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat. Probably the most prominent stories have dealt with Palestinian elections which, in accordance with law in the case of a Presidential vacancy, must take place within sixty days. And in fact a Presidential election is scheduled to take place on 9 January 2005. In all likelihood, elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council and Municipal elections will follow later in the year. There are even signals from Israel that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem will be permitted to vote as was the case in 1996 in spite of the earlier confiscations of their registration data.
For those who have worked over the years helping Palestinians to strengthen their public institutions, the fact that the machinery is in place to carry out elections, as well as to provide other services expected of an efficient and democratic government, comes as no surprise. In fact elections considered free and fair by the international community were carried out by the Palestinian Authority in 1996, and it remains one of the handful of governmentss in the region with a democratically chosen Head of State. The development of these institutions has come about in spite of occupation, an economy in a downward spiral and the deaths of almost 4000 Palestinians and over 1000 Israelis which have captured headlines over the past four years.
Insofar as elections are concerned, 67% of the Palestinian voting population were registered during a voter registration drive (in spite of the East Jerusalem disruptions) which took place in September and October 2004 – a far higher percentage than in virtually all countries in the region, none of which are under occupation; higher than in several long established democracies in Europe; and about the same as the United States. While registration is important and demonstrates, yet again, the capacity of Palestinian institutions and the democratic will of its people, whether Palestinians are actually able to vote come 9 January and later will depend on their unfettered mobility and lack of intimidation in reaching the some 2400 polling stations that will be available, as well as the ability to conduct political campaigns.
But it was not within the past few weeks that electoral machinery has sprung into life. As part of the Palestinian’s own reform process which was started in June 2002, electoral reform has been high on the Palestinian public agenda, and in October 2002 a highly respected Central Elections Commission (CEC) was appointed by Mr.Arafat. By the time of his recent death, not only had the voter registration process already taken place, but also the CEC had a staff of some 300 and established its Headquarters Office in Ramallah, a Gaza Regional Office and 16 District Electoral Offices. It had begun the training of some 14,000 registration and polling staff, launched a public outreach and voter education campaign, developed expertise in information technology for voting security and had data processing machinery in place.
While campaigns and elections themselves are newsworthy whether free and transparent or otherwise, free elections would not be again taking place in Palestine without the less glamorous but essential work that has taken place over the past two years, implemented by Palestinians with assistance from the United Nations Development Programme with the financial support of Japan and Canada and the expertise of the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division as well as others. Only weeks after the CEC was appointed, it was UNDP that provided and furnished the CEC offices, contributed experts - international, and expatriate Palestinians and national – and provided for the employment and training of key CEC staff. Systems for registration, vote tabulation and data entry were put into place as well as mechanisms for observer accreditation and voter education. UNDP will also be responsible for establishing and operating a Liaision and Support Unit for International Electoral Observers for the upcoming Presidential elections. And in short, if voters are not inhibited from voting, the January Palestinian elections can be expected to be a model of transparency and democracy.
The international spotlight that is now turning to Palestinian elections will hopefully demonstrate to many what those who have been privileged to work with the Palestinian people have long known: if only given a fair opportunity, Palestinians have the resolve and capacity to make their new sovereign state a model of vibrancy, democracy and leadership that stands out in the region.
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