By Aaron N Bondar
Ten years ago, on January 25th 2006, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip went to the polls to elect candidates that would take office in the Palestinian Legislative Council, and ultimately, decide the fate of the Palestinian national project in the coming decade.
In the aftermath, Hamas, recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, won 75 of the Council’s seats, giving them a comfortable majority in the 132-seat legislature. Hamas’s victory reverberated throughout the region and placed Fatah, the secular-moderate Palestinian party led by Mahmoud Abbas, sitting in opposition. Violence broke out between Fatah and Hamas supporters and strikes by public workers, led by Fatah, brought instability to the territories. Ten years later, the West Bank and Gaza are separated politically as much as they are geographically. The election of Hamas, and the majority government formed in the wake of it, signaled to Israelis that the Palestinians had been thoroughly radicalized. The United States government, under the Bush administration, suspended aid to the Palestinian Authority in light of the results, even though the administration had been a staunch supporter of Palestinian elections in the first place. News outlets around the world proclaimed Hamas’ “sweeping” victory, and the apparent radicalization of politics will lead for many to use the election as evidence that the Palestinians are not a partner for peace.
The official story is this: Hamas won a stunning and total victory against moderate Fatah because the Palestinians wish for perpetual war with Israel until the entirety of Palestine is liberated. What you don’t hear, however, is how the electoral system used in the Palestinian elections fundamentally changed the outcome. I will attempt to prove that Hamas’s victory was a result of the electoral system used, and not necessarily the overall preferences of the Palestinian people.
Electoral systems are the way votes are allocated and translated into seats. Have you ever wondered how regimes take the raw vote counts and then turn them into seat allotments? The answer is through the use of electoral systems. Political scientists sort the types of electoral systems into three categories: majoritarian, proportional and mixed. Majoritarian systems frequently rely on the use of districts with one seat. To help in visualizing this system, you need not look farther than the system employed here in the United States. The House of Representatives has 435 members, each elected from one of four-hundred and thirty-five districts. Here are the results from New York’s 25th Congressional District in the 2014 midterm elections:
As you can probably tell, this election was highly contested. Louise Slaughter, in the end, beat her Republican challenger by .5 percent of the vote. This .5 percent amounts to less than a 1,000 votes. Neither of the candidates received a majority of the total votes cast. In this case, Louise Slaughter, a Democrat, will now represent all of the New York District 25, though she received less than a percentage point than her challenger. There is not much wrong with this when we consider that the 25th District only has one seat; logically it should go to whomever received the most votes. This wouldn’t be a problem if the country in question consisted only of this one district. But in a country of, let’s say, eight voting districts, majoritarian systems, or winner-take-all systems, can produce highly disproportionate outcomes at the national level, in which percentage of seats held by a party in the national legislature may not even closely reflect the percentage of the votes they received. Systems such as these mean that large swathes of the population may be underrepresented. An example of this can be seen in the following graph:
Table 1 describes an election in a country consisting of eight single-member districts. As you can tell, these districts are congruent; they have similar political makeups and demographics. If a majoritarian system is used in a country like this, where in most districts one political party outnumbers the other by a mere thousand votes, you will start to see close elections manifest themselves in highly disproportionate outcomes. Now, this is an extreme example, and merely illustrates that heavily disproportionate outcomes are extremely possible when using majoritarian systems, and elections that may seem “fair” when looked at on the district level will seem hilariously undemocratic when the scope is broadened.
In this case, Party A wins 87 percent of the legislature, though they received only 52 percent of the vote. If you think, however, these results can only happen in simple models, you’d be wrong. To understand the level of disproportion that can result from use of these systems, consider the 1983 United Kingdom general elections. In that election, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party formed a coalition known as the Alliance. The Alliance won 7,800,000 votes, 25 percent of total votes cast, but won only 23 seats; in the same election, the Labour party received almost 8,500,000 votes — only around 700,000 more than the Alliance — but gained 209 seats in Parliament. Looking at it another way, the Labour Party “paid” 40,000 votes per seat, while the Alliance paid 340,000 votes for each of their seats. This means that as a whole, each vote cast for the Alliance was worth eight and a half times less than a vote cast for the Labor — free and a fair elections indeed.
This isn’t an aberration; disproportional seat allotments are common, particularly in UK elections. A similarly large disparity between votes and seats received was again seen in the 1992 general elections, in which the Liberal Democrats won 6,000,000 votes, but only twenty seats. Meanwhile, the Conservatives won 336 seats with 14,000,000 votes; with only 2.3 times as many votes as the Liberal Democrats, the conservatives won almost 17 times as many seats.
None of this should be taken to mean that single-member district plurality systems, or “first past the post” systems, are inherently bad for democracy. They have their benefits and their flaws, as all systems do. However, it is important to note that when using these systems, the subsequent legislative makeup will not necessarily reflect the preferences of the voters at large; useful to keep in mind when you’re trying to figure out where a population stands. As I mentioned above, there are three different types of electoral systems. In addition to majoritarian systems, there are also proportional systems and they, as their name would suggest, produce as a whole more proportional outcomes. It is important to note, however, that these systems are not named proportional systems because of the outcomes they produce, but rather because of the mechanics they use to allot seats.
Electoral systems can have an enormous impact on the way voter preferences are translated into the makeup of the legislature. If you look back at Table 1, there were 210,000 voters split up almost evenly in 8 districts, each with one seats. Now, without changing the percentage of the total votes cast that each party received, or the individual preferences of the voters in this fictional country, let’s take a look at what would happen if this country adopted a proportional system based on a single national district with eight contested seats. (Israel, a country you are probably familiar with, uses such a system; the Knesset has 120 contested seats in a single national district)
While the above table may seem complicated, it’s rather simple to understand. The Saint-Lague method, which will also come up later due to its in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, is a system used to allot seats based on total vote counts. It involves dividing total votes received– in this case, 100,000 and 110,000 respectively — by increasingly large divisors. Seats are then allocated based on the biggest numbers, until there are no seats left. In the Table above, the numbers in bold are the eight biggest numbers. The formula to find the divisors is simple: 2s +1, where S is the number of seats the party has already received in previous rounds. So, after the first divisor, each party has one seat; therefore, the next divisor is 2(2)+1, which is 3, and so on.
As you can see, using this proportional electoral system resulted in a split legislature; four seats for Party A and four seats for Party B. This seems reasonable, considering the percentage of the popular vote gained by each party is rather close; 52 percent for Party A and 48 percent for Party B. This outcome is certainly more proportional and representative of the preferences of the population at large than the previous election, in which one party received seven seats and the other 1. Note that the total vote counts, percentage of the popular vote received by each party, and the preferences of each individual voter have not changed. The only thing that has changed is the electoral system. You may also note, however, that the change in the number of districts from 8 separate districts to 1 national district dilutes the connection that voters have with their representatives, and regional preferences are not as represented. This is frequently billed as one of the advantages of single-member district plurality systems; because one single representative is responsible for a smaller district, there is a strong connection between the people and their representative, and this results in enhanced constituent-representative relationship, as well as increased accountability and transparency when things go wrong. As with all systems, proportional systems have their benefits and their flaws; like many things in life, we can’t have it all when it comes to electoral systems.
So, what does any of this have to do with the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, and why is any of this relevant ten years on?
Due to electoral reforms enacted in the 90s, the Palestinian Electoral authorities used a mixed, independent electoral system to elect candidates to the 132-member legislative body. Mixed systems utilize aspects of both majoritarian and proportional systems.
An independent-mixed electoral system uses a majoritarian system to elect one tier of legislators, and a proportional system to elect another tier. In the case of the Palestinian elections, the 132-member PLC was divided in half — 66 candidates would be elected on a party-list, proportional system, where individuals would give their vote for a single party, and the party would receive a percentage of the seats based on their percentage of the total vote. These are the results of the proportional half of the Palestinian Legislative elections:
Taken from Palestinian Central Election Commission: http://web.archive.org/web/20090404002945/http://www.elections.ps/template.aspx?id=291
According to the Palestinian Central Election Commission, in the 2006 elections Hamas gained 44 percent of the party-list vote, and Fatah received 41 percent. Hamas and Fatah gained 29 and 28 seats respectively. The other nine seats went to third parties. As you will see, proportional systems such as this benefit smaller parties who, if they can get past a certain electoral percentage threshold, can enter parliament and be represented even if they receive a very small portion of the votes.
Proportional systems ensure that many different interests are represented, which can have positive effects and negative effects on a democracy. Smaller parties means that more people’s voices are heard, but also means that smaller parties can be coalition-breakers and extort concessions from much larger parties. Some proportional systems also encourage extremism, because smaller parties don’t have to vie for the love of moderate voters like larger parties do this can be a serious detriment to liberal democracy — as “fringe” and extremist parties can gain easier access to the legislature, despite not having nation-wide support. Alternative proportional voting systems can allay some of these concerns, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Now let’s take a look at those other 66 seats. These seats were elected using nine districts, each with one to nine seats per district. The method used for voting was the block vote, which means that voters have as many votes as there are seats, and can distribute their votes as they see fit. It is unclear whether the system used allowed Palestinian voters to “stack” votes; that is, vote for the same candidate multiple times.
In total, Fatah received 35 percent of the total votes cast in all districts, while Hamas received around 40 percent. However, of the 66 district seats that were contested, Fatah received 17 seats, around 26 percent of the legislature. Hamas, however, received 45 seats, 68 percent. Despite receiving 35 percent of the district votes, Fatah was only represented in the district-based half of the legislature with 26 percent of the seats. Hamas, despite receiving 40 percent of the vote, saw their representation in the district based half of the PLC rise to 68 percent. This is extraordinarily disproportionate. Despite being separated by 5 percentage points, which amounts to 250,000 votes– remember, these are votes, not voters; each individual has multiple votes– Hamas won a full 42 percent more of the district seats than Fatah. Although this is somewhat mediated by the party list votes– which is one of the benefits of a mixed system– this still results in a disproportionate legislature and gives Hamas a comfortable majority with 74 seats, 56 percent of the legislature, despite receiving around 44 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Fatah, which received around 40 percent of the vote, is left with 45 seats, 34 percent of the legislature.
It can be argued that despite the fact that Hamas received more seats than its vote counts imply, a full 44 percent of the Palestinian voters– the turnout rate for this particular election was around 74 percent — still voted for Hamas (or, the Change and Reform Party as they were listed on the ballot. This suggests that a staggering number of people voted for what Israelis and Americans see as a terrorist organization that has vowed the destruction of Israel and has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli population centers.
It is important to note, however, the context in which these elections occurred. For one, Hamas dropped the annihilation of Israel from its electoral manifesto weeks before the elections. Clearly, Hamas was trying to curry favor among the mostly moderate Palestinian population. It would be a stretch to assume that they genuinely had a change of heart. Clearly, Hamas dropped this plank of their platform in response to the overall feelings of a Palestinian electorate that overwhelmingly supported a two-state solution and wanted Hamas to moderate its views. Exit polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 75 percent of Palestinians in 2006 would like to see Hamas negotiate peace with Israel, and 66 percent of the Palestinians would support a recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people — an absolutely staggering result and a concession that would’ve been unimaginable just decades before the election.
Had Hamas not dropped the call for Israel’s destruction, I believe they would not have received as many votes as they did. However, they probably would’ve received a sizable amount. The reason for this is because Israel, if you can believe this, was not exactly a main focus in the elections. Contrary to popular perception, Palestinian wants, needs and interests are completely divorced from their relationship with Israel. A full 52 percent of Palestinians believed Fatah would lose the elections based on their corruption, and a further 36 percent would attribute a Fatah loss to a failure to enforce law and order. Only 5 percent of Palestinians said that the failure of the peace process would probably influence the election.
In contrast, 37 percent of Palestinians said they voted for Hamas because they would like to live under some sort of religious law, and a further 36 percent of Palestinians voted for Hamas because they thought Hamas would end the widespread corruption that Fatah is infamous for. Only 7 percent of Palestinians responded that they voted for Hamas because they wanted a government that would adequately resist the occupation.
Pro-Israel advocates are no stranger to Fatah’s corruption — in fact, supporters of the Jewish State will frequently use Fatah’s corruption to argue against Palestinian interests, including the two-state solution and Fatah’s legitimacy as a negotiation partner. This is perhaps one of the few dimensions that Palestinians and Israelis agree on: Fatah is, undoubtedly, corrupt. After decades under PLO and Fatah leadership, Palestinians had not seen any legitimate progress, economically or politically. Hamas, in dropping its call for Israel’s annihilation, focused the election on important issues like anti-corruption, and constructed an electoral narrative of the reformist, trustworthy, seemingly moderated Hamas against the corrupt Fatah that has been in power for years with little to show for it. Amazingly, despite this, Palestinians still came out in droves to support the embattled Fatah, despite its history of corruption and mismanagement. This fact, coupled with Hamas’s tactical moderation in response to the preferences of the Palestinian people, seems to suggest that the Palestinians were thoroughly supportive of negotiations with Israel — a moderate and a trustworthy government. This says much about the Palestinian people and their preferences leading up to the election.
The question still remains: why did Fatah win so few seats in the district elections? There is no one answer to this question, but by looking at the election results for particular districts, we can attempt to isolate some reasons for why this might have happened. First, we can look at the election in North Gaza.
As we can see, there were 170,021 votes for Hamas (Change and Reform) candidates in North Gaza and 146,818 votes for Fatah candidate; a total of 390,194 votes were cast. Hamas, despite receiving only 44 percent of the vote, gained 100 percent of the seats. Fatah, meanwhile, received only 6 percent less votes, and yet won exactly none of the seats in this district.
The election in North Gaza illustrates the severe lack of proportionality in the electoral system. The use of this system led to a full 66 perecnt of the votes in this district unrepresented in the final seat allotments. This shows how how the structure of the electoral system might lead to disproportionate outcomes; the next example will show a district that could easily have been won by Fatah had it not been for staggering incompetence and strategic failure.
In all districts, Fatah ran exactly as many candidates as there were seats. If you were unfamiliar with the electoral system, this seems like a sound strategy; run as many candidates as there are seats so that there’s a chance you get all of them, but don’t run any more because that will simply spread your votes too thinly. What Fatah did not understand, and what Hamas used to its advantage, is that sometimes, especially in districts where there are many independent and third-party candidates running, it is better to run one less candidate than there are seats, because it reinforces the votes of your remaining candidates. In effect, you sacrifice one seat in order to gain the rest. In a block voting system, where voters have multiple votes, this added reinforcement can give one party the election quite handily, as you can see from the Nablus election outcomes:
In the above table, Hamas ran five candidates in Nablus; Fatah ran six. Because Hamas, whether by strategy or luck, ran one less candidate, the votes for its five remaining candidates were all reinforces. Looking at vote totals, Hamas Candidates received a total of 203,785 votes and Fatah candidates received a total of 194,937 votes. Though Hamas candidates only received 7,000 more votes in total than Fatah candidates, they received five more seats. Hamas and Fatah effectively gained the same of votes– remember, because the block system gives voters as many votes as there are seats, 7,000 votes translates to 1,200 voters– but because Hamas ran one less candidate, its other candidates vote totals were reinforced, putting each one above another Fatah candidate that might have beaten them. The same strategic failing was repeated in a smaller district, Tulkarem;
FairVote.org did their own analysis of this district and showed, as you can plainly see from the above table, that the presence of a third Fatah candidate prevented Fatah from gaining any seats. Hamas ran two candidates and, despite receiving 27 percent of the vote, received 66 percent of the seats. When you consider that both the highest earning Fatah candidates were only 3,000 votes away from each of them beating Hamas candidates, the presence of a third Fatah candidate clearly spread the votes of Fatah supporters too thinly. This is a particularly egregious example of both Fatah’s strategic failure in the election and the disproportionate nature of the system used, which facilitated Hamas’s ability to gain seats despite not receiving even a plurality of the vote.
In a district like this, it must be asked: did Hamas “win” the election, or did it simply act strategically? Hamas winning this district was more akin to beating Fatah in chess than gaining a mandate to govern from the people. Districts like this gave Hamas the upper hand, and, in the end, gave them a majority in the Legislative Council.
So why even talk about this ten years on? Whatever mistakes were made cannot be undone: Gaza has been under Hamas control for a decade now, and the peace process has stalled. What exactly is the point of bringing all this up, if in the end it doesn’t have a concrete effect on the present reality?
My hope, in writing this article, is not only that I’ve shed light on a particular election at a particular time and dispelled myths that might circulate around it, but that I have taught an important lesson: things are not always as cut and dry as they appear. We must look closer at events to really understand them; we must be critical in our analysis and unflagging in our resolve to find the truth. Though as prideful human beings we might think that our actions are our own and the circumstances that others find themselves in are a product of their own choices, we must understand that our systems and institutions affect us in profound and meaningful ways; sometimes they change the way we think; sometimes they change who gets to govern us. Sometimes they change the course of history itself, as I think this election did. Understanding that institutions mold and shape our destinies is not submission; in fact, it is the opposite. In recognizing that outside forces and the institutions we’ve built for ourselves can affect our natures, we can design better institutions that — instead of chaining us — free us and make us better people in the process. It is for this reason that I have tried to show how the destiny of the Palestinians was affected immensely by their institutions and, in doing so, I hope that it can be a lesson for others.