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How the Palestinians' flawed elections in 2006 destroyed chances for a two-state solution
Winner-take-all elections caused Hamas to win a majority of seats with a minority of the popular vote, exacerbating conflict with Fatah and Israel
[This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on October 30, 2023]
Remarking on the Israel-Gaza war in a news conference last week, President Biden declared, “When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.” There will likely be much more fighting before any such arrangement can start to take shape. But when it does, the warring parties and international facilitators will need to learn from past mistakes.
The fractured Palestinian elections in 2006 led to a bitter and tragic schism between two factions, Hamas and Fatah. When Israel says it has no one with whom to negotiate a two-state solution, there is a degree of truth to that. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction, and the Palestinian Authority has become powerless and barely relevant. This is in part because of the decision by Israeli authorities to sideline and marginalize the Palestinian Authority.
But not completely.
The crucial elections in January 2006 were a classic example of using the wrong election methods, which led to disastrous results. In that election, a hybrid approach was used. Half of the Palestinian legislature’s 132 seats were to be selected by a “winner take all” method and half by a “proportional voting” method. Hamas won 44.5 percent of the popular vote, and the Palestine Liberation Organization-backed Fatah won 41.4 percent. So it was a close election.
The proportional half of the vote yielded a fair outcome. Hamas won its share, 29 of 66 seats (roughly 44 percent), as did Fatah with 28 seats (roughly 42 percent). If those were the only election results, they would have produced a broadly representative legislature. But the winner-take-all side of the election broke down badly. There were a dozen political parties, and split votes and spoilers ruled the day. Even though Hamas garnered an average of only 41 percent of the popular vote in the winner-take-all half, it won 68 percent of those seats while Fatah won only 26 percent.
Overall, Hamas won a total of 56 percent of the legislature’s seats, a solid majority but with a minority of the vote. This result grossly overrepresented pro-Hamas sentiment among Palestinians.
If a proportional voting method had been used for all seats, Hamas would not have won a majority and would have needed to form a post-election coalition. Indeed, one analysis found that if proportional voting had been used for the entire legislature, Fatah and like-minded parties and independent partners would have been able to form a majority coalition government. Either way, results with a better votes-to-seats ratio would have provided incentives for bridge-building and possibly even a grand coalition between Hamas and Fatah. This would have established a foundation for a more stable transition to a democratic system — and possibly inaugurated a steadier leadership for negotiations with the Israelis.
Instead, parliamentary democracy ended. Subsequent elections have been repeatedly canceled amid the fratricidal tensions and bouts of conflict among Palestinian factions, as well as periodic wars with the Israelis.
There is ample evidence that when elections occur in extremely polarized societies, a winner-take-all method can result in lopsided outcomes that result in upset losers and further polarization. Egypt’s 2012 presidential election was another good case study. There were five major candidates in the race: Mohamed Morsi (who got roughly 25 percent of the vote), Ahmed Shafik (24 percent), Hamdeen Sabahi (21 percent), Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (18 percent) and Amr Moussa (11 percent).
The two candidates who advanced to the runoff were extremely polarizing: the Islamist Morsi and the Mubarak regime holdover Shafik. Just under half the first-round votes went to the other three candidates, who were more in the middle of Egypt’s political spectrum. The moderate vote split in three, and if Sabahi or Aboul Fotouh had made the runoff, there is a good chance either of them would have beaten Morsi or Shafik. And if Egypt had used ranked-choice voting, polls showed there was a good chance Sabahi would have won.
With a better electoral method, Egypt might have avoided its ill-fated election of a Muslim Brotherhood hard-liner who further polarized society and was subsequently overthrown in a military coup. That in turn contributed to the tragic end of the Arab Spring democratization movement.
There is a golden rule in a healthy democracy, much espoused yet too rarely practiced: “Give unto others the representation you would have them give unto you.” If these lessons are not internalized by those trying to build a peaceful, decent state for the Palestinian people, the next attempts at representative democracy will likely also collapse.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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