Monday, January 30, 2006

No Such Thing as Too Much Democracy

I keep thinking that I’m through writing about the Palestinian elections, about which I really don’t know much, it’s not like I’m there, I just read a lot about it and have talked to a few friends. I think I would like to go on to other things, like Ten Against Torture’s inaugural public action, a street theater at Saturday night’s appearance by Hillary Clinton at a Bar Association fundraiser. To dramatize the ongoing torture and unlawful detention of thousands of people in Iraq and Cuba and Afghanistan, which the esteemed senator-would-be-president has not taken any action to stop, we had two prisoners, one in a full black shroud and one in an orange jumpsuit, blindfolded and chained, and two soldiers with cardboard rifles. We got quite a bit of press attention, a fair amount of which ended up being for naught because some members of Code Pink infiltrated the event (go girls) and got arrested, so of course they got on the news, but we were on one television station and quoted in an AP story:

Or, I could share with you the exciting new “scent study” by the Monell Senses Center, the latest in the biodeterminists Stupid Science series. This one spent a lot of money trying to prove that sexual orientation determines whose body odor you like. If we understand it correctly, it actually proved that no one likes body odor much, and I for one am really glad that the Canadian and Swedish governments gave money to support such a worthy effort, instead of wasting it on AIDS prevention or breast cancer. (If you actually want to read more about the study, you can do it at; the new issue of UltraViolet is just up, hot off the press.)

The problem is that I can’t get away from the elections now. I guess you should not complain when the thing you’ve been trying to get everyone to focus on for five years is finally on the front pages every day for a week. But then it elicits such bizarre comments that I just have to respond.

Today’s New York Times reports, “Hamas's victory has set off a debate whether the [Bush] administration was so wedded to its belief in democracy that it could not see the dangers of holding elections in regions where Islamist groups were strong and democratic institutions weak.” Seriously. So does the administration think that they should have forbidden the Palestinians from having elections? And do they think the Palestinian Authority would have listened to them if they had? Do they honestly believe that the Palestinians held elections to make us happy? If they do, I have news for them.

All my friends who are now where I wish I were, in Palestine, say that no one has talked about anything but the elections for weeks. Which is really interesting and I think more than anything attests to the appeal of “Change and Reform” – both the party (that’s the banner under which Hamas candidates ran) and the ideals. Because a little more than a year ago, when they were preparing for the first local elections, particularly men were not at all interested. “Elections can do nothing,” they would say, meaning, as long as we are under occupation, elections are meaningless. Women were more enthusiastic, attending workshops, running for office, and it seemed to me that they had decided –collectively but informally – that since the men were not so interested, this was a form of participation they could take hold of and make theirs. And they did. Women became vice mayors and mayors in villages that had never had a woman on the council before. And they found that it was interesting, and that they were good at it, and that it didn’t undermine the fabric of a traditional Arab-Islamic society.

And possibly, although I have absolutely NOOO empirical evidence for this, that’s one reason that men decided they’d better step up and make sure things didn’t get out of hand.

But more, people in general found that the elections were a way they could have a voice. It might be a voice that no one listened to very much, but it was a way to make a statement. A statement about how fed up and dissatisfied they are, and about how they want things to be. And so with each subsequent election, the use of votes to voice a loud protest got stronger, and unfortunately from my perspective, Hamas was the group that was mobilized to get the protest vote. In the first local elections, most of the candidates were independents. By the third, Hamas was sweeping towns that had traditionally been Communist or Fatah (mainstream nationalist). Not, according to people I know and trust, many of whom voted for Hamas candidates, because they themselves are supporters of Hamas, but because Hamas chose candidates who were “good, honest, independent people.”

My friend Hannah has been going around talking to people about who they voted for, or at least she has been going around, and people are talking very openly about who they voted for, and who their friends voted for. She says many people said they voted for Hamas because of the polling data, that showed Fatah taking a safe plurality, and they felt they wanted to equalize power. So they thought they would send Fatah a message.

She also explained something that I had seen references to, without understanding what it meant: that Fatah did not unify its slates. For those who don’t know, there were two parallel elections: national and district. People voted for candidates from a national list, and then they voted for a candidate from their district, and placed them in two separate ballot boxes. 66 representatives were elected from each list, for a total of 132. In the national election, Fatah and Hamas (Change and Reform) came out almost equal 28 to 29. But in the districts, Change and Reform took 45 and Fatah 17. The main reason for this, Hannah explained, was that in most districts Fatah had many candidates, and Change and Reform only one. So none of the Fatah candidates won. While I didn’t realize that, Fatah’s leadership certainly did, so the fact that they refused to unify certainly means they deserved to lose.

I personally expect, and I don’t say this with any glee at all, Hamas to crash and burn, because, among other things, they are inheriting a government that has already been bankrupted, thanks to Israeli siege, foreign debt, abandonment by its ostensible allies, and a measure of bureaucratic corruption (see my previous blogs on the PA’s financial crisis). So their ability to meet the needs people elected them meet is going to be pretty much curtailed, unless Iran steps in to shore them up, which could do them more harm than good politically. The cynical side of me (some of you might ask, is there another side?) believes that the U.S. and Israeli governments planned this out, to cut Hamas’s knees out from under them before the final carve-out of the pseudo-state is completed. (Israel would be a much better candidate for that planning than the current U.S. government, I have to say.)

But whether they did or didn’t, and whether my predictions are right or wrong, the Palestinian people should be proud of the fact that their clarion call of protest has been heard, loud and clear. If they had done what was expected, and voted for Fatah, the news would have been barely a blip on our internet news services. The US and Israel would have hailed them as marching toward democracy, the US would have taken credit for forcing them into it, and then they would have proceeded to try to muscle them into and through another round of “peace talks” aimed at cementing (literally) the borders that Israel has been busy unilaterally carving out with its bulldozers. Instead, the US regime has had to admit that it does not really believe in democracy, and that is something we have been trying to make them do for years. So for that if nothing else, we must be grateful to the Palestinian people.

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