Can a newly elected parliament repair the damage done to the Palestinian political system in its absence?
Dr. Khalil Shikaki
Critical Policy Brief, Number 1/2021 >>> See full text here
In mid-January 2021, president Abbas issued a decree calling for holding parliamentary elections on 22 May. It is not certain that any elections will take place in the near future and the goal of holding such elections, if they do take place, is almost certainly not the reform of the political system. Indeed, the goal most emphasized by Palestinian leaders, from Fatah and Hamas alike, is “the unification of the Palestinians people.” Nonetheless, it is essential to explore the implications of the revival of a parliamentary life, in the form of an elected PLC, on the prospects for reform even if elections do not take place soon. Once a Palestinian parliament is created, the political system will find it impossible to continue its current slide to authoritarianism.
The paper outlines the main target areas of reform which the council should focus on from the first day of its existence. Doing so is critical to the success of the parliament in making itself a strong and effective public institution, one capable of representing the public that elected it and delivering on its promises to that public. The paper outlines the expected challenges that will confront the parliament as it sets its own agenda. If not addressed, these challenges can impede the parliament’s efforts to accomplish its mission in bringing accountability back into the Palestinian political system. Based on that review, the paper proposes a list of reform priorities that are relevant to parliament’s own role and function but can also have a multiplying effect on the entire political system. Despite their importance, this policy paper does not directly address highly relevant domestic issues, such as those dynamics that led to the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, how to reform the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), what to do about the Palestinian regional problems or how to improve relations with Israel. Instead, it is restricted to those political issues that are directly related to the reform of the political system and particularly those that require parliamentary intervention. Moreover, in outlining the challenges and impediments to reform, the paper is focused essentially on the functioning of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and does not directly address the Hamas’ practices in the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that these practices have been more determinantal to the future of accountability in the political system.
This policy brief started with a skeptical view regarding the prospect of holding Palestinian legislative elections any time soon. However, the skepticism did not stop it from looking for ways in which elections, if they were held, can be capitalized on to serve the interests of Palestinian society, particularly in the area of political reforms. The previous analysis described the various indications of the slide to authoritarianism in the Palestinian political system and the four drivers of this slide. This analysis gave implicit support to the skeptical view by raising various indications questioning the seriousness of the PA leadership and the main Palestinian political parties in holding elections.
For the Palestinian political system to exit the current slide to authoritarianism and to be able to stand on a solid ground for a transition to good governance, it will be essential for all public institutions to work in harmony, including the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, civil society, and the media. The discussion in this paper has been restricted to the role of the PLC, once elected, because it will represent the aspiration of the Palestinian people and its civil society to build a political system characterized by accountability and rule of law.
During the years of the split, Palestinians discovered that they are not different from the rest of the Arab peoples, leaders, and political parties despite their own unique experience of living under occupation and in exile. Moreover, they discovered that they too are not much different than other Arab masses that tolerated oppression and authoritarianism for decades before the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011. The Arab Barometer’s fifth round, conducted in Palestine around the end of 2018, found that only one third of the Palestinians trust their own government, that the majority does not believe that it has guarantees of freedom of expression, and 83% said there is corruption in the PA public institutions. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority agrees that “democracy, despite its problems, is the best system there is,” about three quarters describe the status of democracy in Palestine as bad or very bad. Yet, no more than one third indicate that they participate in some kind of opposition activities.
The holding of legislative (and presidential, at a latter stage) could provide the Palestinian public with the ability to make a difference and institute the change they have always aspired for through a widespread participation in these elections. Once a parliament is elected, it will have the mandate required for reforms thereby providing a solid ground for the PLC to take up the four areas of reform agenda covered in this paper. In order to succeed in its efforts to reform the PA, the PLC will have three effective tools in its arsenal: amending the Basic Law, reviewing, amending or rejecting selected laws issued by presidential decrees, and forcing a newly established government to amend or cancel anti-democratic regulations adopted by previous governments.
- Amending the Basic Law: This measure will be the most difficult because it is not clear that the PLC will have the majority needed to approve the proposed amendments. Nonetheless, it will be valuable for the parliament to open a debate on the need to transform the Palestinian political system into a parliamentary one or at least to take steps to decrease the powers of the office of the president so as to remove any ambiguity about the ability of a president to issue legislation during the absence of the parliament and put in place greater protection for the immunity of its members. It should ensure that the president does not have the capacity to make top senior appointments in the public sector without explicit parliamentary approval, that the executive cannot take away jurisdiction belonging to the judiciary, that free speech is guaranteed, and that the space available to civil society is not shrunk and their activities curtailed or controlled. The amendments and clarifications must make it clear, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that a government that does not receive a parliamentary vote of confidence is illegitimate and its decisions invalid.
- Rule by decrees: The Palestinian political system should not tolerate rule by decree. The PLC should review, amend, or reject in its first session all those laws issued by decree that have caused great damage to the principle of separation of powers or violated the terms of the Basic Law, including those affecting the judiciary, the constitutional court, the cybercrime law, and others.
- Illegal governmental regulations: The PLC should also reject all those decisions and orders issued by the various PA governments since 2007 that violated the separation of powers and represented an attack on the jurisdiction of the parliament, such as the amendment introduced in 2015 to the regulations governing the functioning of the non-profit companies.
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