The world received some excellent news just this past year, in February 2020. President Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to hold parliamentary elections. He has even requested international oversight of these elections to ensure fairness is maintained. Palestinian leaders have been working toward introducing and building democratic ideals in the region for decades. They even had an election during which, President Abbas came to power. So, why is this a newsworthy event? Perhaps it is due to the fact that President Abbas gave this news as he sits comfortably in his presidency more than a decade past his elected term.
The geography of Israel is a slight complicated one that lends itself the some of the issues within the country. Within the state of Israel, the area encompassing the Gaza Strip is still known as Palestine. These are two separate entities. Though, technically part of Israel and under Israeli rule, the area is populated by Palestinians who refuse to simply “give up” their land, their country, their heritage to the Israeli people and government. After decades of tension between Palestinians and Israelis, more forward-thinking Palestinian leaders felt the need to establish some sort of unified governmental system for the Palestinian people. In the 1990’s a group was established and was called the Palestinian National Authority.
Through diplomatic efforts, such as the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian National Authority has made strides to embrace democracy and tried to offer solutions to the long-fought Israel-Palestine conflict. In a free election, Mahmoud Abbas, a member of Fatah, came to power in 2005 as the president, the leader of the Palestinian National Authority. This militant political organization is in rivalry with Hamas for control over the Palestinian people. Though control is a relative term in this respect, since Palestine is not a state, has no governing abilities, and is subject to Israel’s laws. The Palestinian Authority was previously a semi-governing body comprised of Palestinians who desired to come to terms of agreement between Palestine and Israel. Throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the Authority managed to create a number of agreements with Israel to ensure better safety and support of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. Fatah realizes the benefits of compromise with Israel, while Hamas prefers resistance. Now, the President of the Palestinian Authority is a Fatah leader, though Hamas won the election, creating an internal conflict amongst the Palestinian people. This, on top of the historical conflict in the region, has created even more instability. In order to maintain control, Abbas halted elections in the region for some 15 years. Thus, the news this past year that elections would be held again and even supervised by international committees, was both astounding and, yet, very doubtful.
Numerous authors have broached the topic of this bastardization of democracy. Though Israel is certainly a new democracy, and Palestine cannot be considered a democratic government, as it is not even a state, they both still represent this idea of backsliding. A leading source on this topic is the renowned author, Nancy Bermeo. She is an Ivy-league educated scholar who sits on the board of Comparative Politics at Oxford University. She has written several books, including “On Democratic Backsliding”, a well-known and widely used scholarly text. She entitles this process of established democracies breaking down or fledgling democracies failing all together, democratic backsliding. The term is just a phrase given to the slow decent of democracy into a previous form of government or a new form, both of which are usually authoritarianism or autocracy.
Autocracies have sprung up in civilizations all around the world since the beginning of time. It seems almost as natural for one person to want to rule over all the others as it does for those same people to eventually realize they must work together in order to truly accomplish anything productive. Though, many of the societies around the world have come to this understanding and forged strong democratic governments, there still exists a substantial portion of the world’s governments that have not. Or even worse, some of those governments have experienced this democratic backsliding of which we speak, or failed completely.
Israel, according Freedom House’s world map of democracy, is a “free” democratic state. However, within its borders is a militant faction controlling a political body which represents nearly 2 million of the citizens of the country. Not only could the effects of the deterioration of democracy affect the lives of the Palestinians living inside Israel’s borders, but who is to say the continued conflict and adversity faced by that same group of people may not begin to spill over and affect Israeli politics. One of the dangers of failing democracies is that they often do not die alone, they take others down with them. The proximity of these two regions could not be closer, as they literally share borders. The effects of the societal, religious, historical conflicts within the region has been broadcast around the world for decades, so it quite apparent the region is already unstable to say the least.
Assad’s announcement to hold elections came to us over a year ago and the elections have been scheduled for this upcoming May. Perhaps Hamas and Fatah will both truly accept the ideals and values of democracy, because studies have shown us that without this foundation, elections alone do not ensure a democracy. Perhaps this will lead to a less militant, combative form of governing and promote a desire for peace and compromise. After all, free elections are certainly a good sign, particularly with the added aspect of inviting international oversight. The world will watch with bated breath to see the outcome of these supposedly free elections. With some positive changes, maybe the hope that Palestine could embrace democracy the way its neighboring Israel has will not be a lost hope but a path to a bright, new future.
*Image of voting box in last Israeli election.