This year has witnessed some important electoral developments in the Middle East and surrounding areas, with elections being held in Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Bangladesh and Bosnia. [1] Some of these elections have been especially interesting in terms of what they have revealed about the potential for electoral systems — the rules by which winners are determined — to shape public policy, communal identity and how groups — be they ethnic, religious or political — interact. The different electoral systems newly instituted in Palestine and South Africa have had a profound impact on shaping electoral outcomes in their respective political systems and, arguably, on social and political policy and communal identity.

Netanyahu’s slim victory in Israel’s first direct election for prime minister illustrates how the structure of electoral systems can greatly influence electoral outcomes. [2] Israel’s switch from a proportionally representative parliamentary system to a “mixed” parliamentary system (with direct election of the prime minister) may have influenced Peres’ attempt to appear tough by invading Lebanon and Netanyahu’s attempt to appear conciliatory by accepting the Oslo accords. The new electoral system, by allowing voters to split ballots between parties and prime minister, may have increased political polarization and reduced social cohesion among religious Jews, secular Israelis and the Palestinian residents of Israel. [3]

Algeria provides another example of how an electoral system can shape electoral outcomes. In 1992 the Algerian government, with the support of the international community, aborted the country’s first experiment with a winner-take-all system when it realized that the Islamic Salvation Front would have taken power. In May 1996, the Algerian government proposed that the majoritarian system be replaced by proportional representation, a system which encourages power sharing among parties and gives voters a real choice by making multiple viable through the allocation of seats in the legislature based on the percentage of votes each party receives.

Palestine and South Africa

Elements of the struggle for democracy and self-determination in South Africa and Palestine lend themselves to comparison. Non-white South Africans and Palestinians see themselves as having been dispossessed by settler-colonial states. White South Africans and Israeli Jews have felt unfairly singled out by the international community for seeking “self-determination,” notwithstanding apartheid and Israeli rule over non-Jews. The negotiated compromises, however, are vastly different. While white and black South Africans agreed that the united state would be based essentially on a “one-person, one-vote” principle, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed to the partition of what they each view as their historic homeland into an independent Israel and a dependent Palestine in less than 27 percent of the Occupied Territories.

Despite the vast differences in the political arrangements, these two “first” elections warrant comparison both because of the historical camaraderie between Palestinians and anti-apartheid South Africans, and because the media presented the two elections as similarly adequate solutions to “intractable” ethnic conflicts. The electoral systems that were chosen and the process by which they were chosen, however, belie a significant difference: the justice attained in the South African settlement has not been matched in the Palestinian settlement. The strengths and weaknesses of these two “first” elections, both of which I had the privilege of observing, [4] demonstrate wide-ranging effects of different types of electoral systems.

Despite numerous problems, Palestinians went to the polls in what might have been the highest voter turnout rates in the region had Israel not intimidated and, in some cases, physically prevented thousands of Palestinians from voting. Voter turnout, nearly 90 percent in the Gaza Strip where Israeli troops were largely absent, was 68 percent in the West Bank largely due to the poor showing in Hebron and Jerusalem, which remain under full Israeli control. In the few weeks available for voter registration, more than 2.25 million voters were registered — more than 90 percent of all eligible voters.

No Internal Debate

The robustness of voting notwithstanding, the most telling sign of the relative injustice in the Palestinian negotiations and the absence of sovereign power is the marginal role the Palestinian people have played in determining their future.

South African society, by contrast, participated in a multi-year “Conference for a Democratic South Africa,” attended by all political parties. The proceedings were hotly debated in the South Africa press. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), De Klerk’s National Party (NP) and many others were able to negotiate a process acceptable to all parties. Enough was offered to the leadership of each party to enable it to convince its rank and file to accept the compromises. Buthelezi’s Inkatha and the NP fought hard for a federal system in which individual states would have genuine though limited power and for a “split ballot” that would allow voters to choose parties for these states and the national government separately. The leadership of the ANC wisely acquiesced to these demands, realizing that by giving something to Inkatha and the NP, in this case the likely control of two provinces, it could preserve national unity and still retain control over the central government.

Palestinian society did not have the opportunity to benefit from such a process. The rules of the game were quickly decided by the Palestinian Authority with the backing of Israel, the US and the international community. This further engendered resentment and objections from the left, Islamists and independents, including Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, the top vote getter in the Legislative Council. The elections — designed to strengthen Arafat’s control — were based not on Palestinian sovereignty but on an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Prior to the elections, Palestinians had only a few weeks to get to know the candidates’ platforms. Effective democracy requires a free exchange of ideas and informed debate; many months are required for enough information to enable a society to make informed choices. Furthermore, the campaign period should be of sufficient length to enable candidates to hear the concerns of constituents and incorporate these concerns into their own platforms. If the Palestinian public had participated in the shaping of their own electoral system, they surely would have allowed themselves more time to become familiar with the various candidates.

South African voters had nearly a year to consider party platforms. Likewise, parties had a year to recreate themselves in response to voters’ concerns. For Palestinians, the difficulty of obtaining information in such a short period was further compounded by limited newspaper circulation and inexperienced electronic media.

First Past the Post

As demonstrated in the Israeli elections, electoral systems affect not only electoral outcomes but also how contestants define their platforms and identify allies. In the Palestinian context, Israel and the US pushed for a system that would minimize diverse opinions and maximize Arafat’s control. The Palestinian electoral system divided the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem into 16 voting districts with between one and 12 representatives per district.

Parliamentary systems patterned around proportional representation — such as existed in Israel prior to 1996 or in South Africa — generate diverse parties with clear political platforms. The division of Palestinian society into unnecessarily small districts made it more difficult for representatives of smaller political parties and women to be elected. In fact, no women were elected from any of the six districts that had four or fewer seats. [5] One month prior to the elections, polling data showed that Arafat’s Fatah party enjoyed only 55 percent support. [6] The electoral system, however, allowed Fatah and Fatah-affiliated independents to win 65 of the 88 seats or 74 percent of the legislative council. Genuine independents took 15 seats, religious parties took five seats and left parties took three seats. Pooling the voting on a national level, as in the Israeli electoral system, would have increased the success of the smaller parties. This in turn would have led to the formation of broader coalitions within the Legislative Council and a healthy system of “checks and balances” on Arafat’s power.

By carving up the landscape into multiple districts each with its own representative(s), the electoral law encourages voters to vote and organize themselves around local, instead of national, issues. Furthermore small electoral districts allowed candidates to rely more upon systems of family patronage. The multi-member, multi-constituency district system does little to encourage bridge building among political, religious or ethnic communities. Instead, it encourages candidates to harness existing systems of inter-family patronage to garner the minimum amount of votes needed to make it “first past the post.” Some candidates were elected with rates as low as 12 percent in Hebron and 14 percent in Bethlehem.

The Christian Quota

The legacy of apartheid meant that South Africans specifically had struggled against any system which would divide the population into ethnic, racial or religious groups. The PLO, elements of which had viewed the Palestinian struggle for independence along similar lines, probably should have refused any electoral quota system. With virtually no public debate over the merits of such a policy, Palestinian electoral law grants Christians, who make up 3 percent of the population, a quota of 7 percent of the seats. Although some have characterized this as a form of Palestinian “affirmative action,” history has shown nearly universally disastrous results with such systems. Without drawing too many parallels to the disintegration of “democracy” in Lebanon, the fixed disproportional allocation of power along religious lines contributed directly to the outbreak of civil war in the mid-1970s. Most elections experts contend that a quota system for religious minorities entrenches inter-religious differences and discourages coalition building across religious lines. At the time of the election, many Christian and non-Christian Palestinians complained that the creation of a Christian quota was unhealthy and may significantly worsen relations between Christians and Muslims in Palestinian society.

The interim South African constitution wisely stipulated that a vice president come from the second largest party and that cabinet posts be distributed proportionally based on the vote: a party with 25 percent of the vote would get 25 percent of the cabinet posts. The Palestinian electoral law, however, has limited power-sharing arrangements, with the president having total veto power over any act of parliament.

Democracy in Palestine

On the eve of the South African elections in April 1994, Dullah Omar, now South Africa’s minister of justice, spoke to our small delegation of observers, saying, “Democracy is when people, on a regular basis, on an ongoing basis, participate in the decisions that affect their own lives.” In the Palestinian context, the quality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip hinges directly upon Israel’s willingness to grant Palestinians full sovereignty over the development of their economy and democracy.

The Palestinians also need to work to create their own democratic practices and institutions. Already the newly elected Legislative Council has taken stands in opposition to Arafat on a number of issues. One area where the Legislative Council has clarified its position has been on the independence of the judiciary. This was precipitated by the case of one of Palestine’s leading human rights advocates, Iyad Sarraj, for comments critical of Arafat published in the New York Times on May 6, 1996. On May 18, he was arrested, held for days, then released in response to international pressure. On June 9, Sarraj was rearrested for 17 days during which time he was severely beaten. In the wake of the detention of Sarraj, the Council voted unanimously to demand due process for all prisoners held by the Palestinian Authority.

The current system of continued Israeli control over the Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip combined with elections for the Palestinians is as unlikely to lead to economic development and political stability as did apartheid-era “democracy” for black South Africans who were living in South African bantustans. If countries in the Middle East do not allow “ordinary people to participate in the decisions that effect their own lives,” with uncritical international support, there may be a backlash against the current wave of elections as yet another false hope of the West.


[1] In January, Palestinians held their first elections under the Palestinian Authority. In May, Israel utilized a new electoral system. Turkey has its first Islamist prime minister after a period of post-elections wrangling. Bangladesh, after much unrest and the cancellation of the February elections, elected a new government in June. In May, the Algerian government floated a proposal to change its electoral system to one of proportional representation that might facilitate the sharing of power. Despite the cancellation of local elections, Bosnia, on September 14, held its first elections for a legislature and a joint Bosnian-Croat-Serb presidency.
[2] See Baruch Kimmerling, “On Elections in Israel,” in this issue.
[3] When Israel’s two main parties agreed to change their electoral system from a simple proportional representation system to a “mixed” system with the direct election of the prime minister, they thought that this would strengthen their appeal to their electorate and weaken fringe parties. This analysis was flawed. By allowing voters to split their votes between a prime minister and a party, those who were torn between Likud and a religious party, for example, voted for Netanyahu for prime minister but for a religious party for the Knesset. Likud’s Knesset seats fell from 33 to 26 percent and Labor’s Knesset seats fell from 37 to 28 percent. Meanwhile religious parties grew from 13 percent to 20 percent of the vote.
[4] In April 1994, I observed the South African elections as part of a delegation from Princeton University. In January 1996, I escorted a delegation of Arab-American elected officials to observe the Palestinian election to share their electoral experience with the Palestinian community.
[5] No women were elected in Bethlehem, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Salfit, Tubas or Jericho. Of the 88 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, only four (or 5 percent) were women. Although this figure is comparable to the United States, where only eight out of every 100 elected officials in the Senate are women, it compares quite unfavorably to South Africa where 26 percent or 106 of the 400 seats are held by women. Under South Africa’s proportional representation system, most South African parties placed relatively large numbers of women on their party lists to court the female vote.
[6] The survey of more than 1,100 adults in the West Bank and Gaza was conducted from December 7-10, 1995 by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus.

How to cite this article:

Hady Amr "Electoral Systems and Democracy," Middle East Report 201 (Winter 1996).

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