Palestinian Election Plans Criticized
European observers on Monday blasted the Palestinian Authority for its handling of the campaign that is supposed to produce an elected self-governing authority for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“Enough is enough,” said Carl Lidbom, head of the European Electoral Unit, in a statement that he faxed to reporters complaining about irregular election procedures.
Lidbom’s complaints were echoed by Kare Vollan, head of the Norwegian observer delegation. More than 600 international observers are expected to monitor the elections, scheduled for Jan. 20.
Both observers took issue with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s recent presidential decrees expanding the number of members who will serve on the Palestinian self-governing council.
When he added members to the council, Arafat extended the deadline for candidates to file their nominating petitions, an act that allowed more people to run for the council but shortened the election campaign to two weeks.
“A fair campaign is a prerequisite for fair elections, and two weeks are in all respects an extremely short period for this crucial activity,” Vollan said.
The criticism is embarrassing for the PLO. During the negotiations that led to the signing of the September 1993 Israeli-PLO peace accord, the PLO spent months arguing with the Israelis over the importance of having international monitors.
The Israelis initially opposed allowing observers into the West Bank and Gaza, maintaining that Israel is a democracy and its commitment to allowing democratic elections should be beyond question. The PLO argued that only the presence of international observers would reassure Palestinians that Israel was not interfering with elections.
Ian Blackley, spokesman for European Union monitors, said Lidbom met with officials of the Central Elections Commission on Monday night, but he said commission head Mahmoud Abbas did not attend.
Former commission head Saeb Erekat--now a candidate for the council--said he agrees with the observers that the campaign should start immediately.
“In this, they have a point,” he said. “I urged the president [Arafat] to announce that the election campaign should start immediately.”
Not that most candidates are not already campaigning. For weeks, many of the 700 declared candidates have been holding gatherings in the homes of their families and friends and placing ads in the newspapers, despite admonishments from the election commission that their activities were illegal.
In September, Israel and the PLO agreed that the council would have 82 members. Arafat subsequently added a seat for the Samaritan community that lives in Nablus. Last week, he expanded the council again, this time to 88 members, and reopened candidate registration in the districts where he added seats. Arafat then issued a decree saying that the campaign will begin Jan. 5, rather than Dec. 30.
After Arafat reopened candidate registration, four men closely identified with the militant Hamas Islamic movement in Gaza announced that they will compete in the elections, despite the movement’s decision against fielding candidates.
Arafat had tried for months to persuade Hamas, the most organized opposition to his own Fatah faction, to participate in the elections. But the movement refused, saying it will not abandon attacks on Israelis.
The decision by some Hamas members to participate was seen as a political victory for Arafat, a sign that the movement is split over how to cope with the reality of Palestinian self-government and with Fatah’s dominance of the Palestinian political scene.
Lidbom complained that Arafat should not be making decisions on the length of the campaign, the deadline for candidate registration or the number of seats on the council. Instead, he said, those decisions should have been made by the Central Election Commission.
“We wanted to put down a strong marker and say that these endless, confusing changes must stop,” Blackley said.
Lidbom charged that the election commission, established by Arafat to oversee procedures and announced just before the end of the year, was formed too late. He also said Abbas, also known as Abu Mazan, has refused to see him.
Whenever Lidbom tries to arrange a meeting with Abbas, “we’re told that he is traveling, that he is not available,” Blackley said.
He said it is “most abnormal” for the head of the observer mission not to have access to the head of the election commission.
“It is not a terribly good way to run things,” Blackley said.
The observers are not the only ones complaining.
Reporters Without Borders, an independent organization that monitors freedom of the press, criticized the authority for a lack of balance in the access that public television and radio give opposition parties and candidates.
“A very strong imbalance is found in the access to Palestinian public radio and TV between different candidates and parties,” the group said in a statement issued after it surveyed the authority-run television and radio stations for 10 days in December.
Radio did better, it said, providing access to 20 candidates. Palestinian newspapers were found to grant more access to the leftist opposition parties than to Fatah.
Still, much of the access in newspapers was in the form of advertising space for opposition candidates, Reporters Without Borders said.
Another alarming development, the European Union observers and Palestinian journalists said Sunday, was the Palestinian Authority’s five-day arrest of Maher Alami, a senior editor and columnist of the Palestinian daily, Al Quds, by the Palestinian Authority for placing a story about Arafat inside the paper rather than on the front page.
Alami was released Saturday after he was brought to see Arafat in Ramallah.
After his release, Alami said Arafat told him that his arrest was a mistake. But he said he was also chastised for not running a story about the Greek Orthodox patriarch comparing Arafat to medieval Muslim conqueror Omar Khatab during Arafat’s Christmas visit to Bethlehem.