Ballot Box

Electile Dysfunction

Why democracy won’t cure Palestine.

It didn’t take long for President Bush to get the first thing he demanded in his Monday speech on the Middle East. Today the Palestinian Authority announced that it will hold elections next January for the job currently held by Yasser Arafat, the man Bush wants to get rid of. There’s just one problem. The likely winner of that election is Yasser Arafat.

Arafat has already won the only election that’s been held for his job. In 1996, he got 85 percent of the vote. He has said privately that he’ll run for re-election in January. Even Palestinian politicians who dislike him say nobody can beat him, especially since every Palestinian now knows that voting for Arafat is the simplest way to give Bush the finger. And that’s the good scenario. The bad scenario is that this anti-American sentiment sweeps politicians affiliated with Hamas into power.

What would the United States and other governments overseeing the peace process do if Arafat wins? Does Bush have any business telling the Palestinians whom to elect? Those are the questions Bush, Arafat, and other heads of state have been fielding and debating through the media since Monday. Yesterday, with the French foreign minister at his side, Arafat declared that “my people” are “the only ones who can determine” whether Arafat keeps his job. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan took the same position. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair conceded, at a joint appearance with Bush today, that “it’s for the Palestinians to elect the people that they choose to elect.”

The implicit message in much of the media coverage is that if Arafat wins the election Bush has demanded, Bush will be a hypocrite not to work with him. Arafat is happy to foster this idea. Yesterday he pledged to “respect all the principles the Palestinian people support.” Annan, who fears that the election won’t produce the results sought by Palestinian reformers, lamented with resignation that “it will be the result of a democratic process, and we have to accept that.”

No, no, and no. We don’t have to embrace any regime just because it has been elected. The problem isn’t just that democracy doesn’t guarantee a regime that will fight terror. (In this case, as in other Muslim societies in the present environment, it may guarantee the opposite.) The problem, as Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, is that democracy alone doesn’t guarantee freedom. Freedom requires further conditions: a constitution, civil liberties, separation of powers, and an independent judiciary.

Bush illustrates the point. He earned the American presidency not by winning the popular vote, but by winning the Electoral College under a constitutional formula whose proper execution was certified by the U.S. Supreme Court. If you don’t like that result, there are constitutional ways for you to do something about it. As for Arafat, it’s not enough for him to “respect all the principles the Palestinian people support.” The principles of freedom—above all, rights of dissent—must circumscribe, not just depend upon, fluctuations in public opinion.

In a society devoid of constitutional protections and the effective rule of law, elections don’t necessarily produce what the people want. To begin with, many are afraid to vote against those in power. Some Palestinian moderates fear for their lives. Others won’t run for office because they’ve surrendered hope of ousting Arafat. Five years ago, the Palestinian legislature passed a law that was supposed to establish basic individual rights. Arafat didn’t sign it until last month. Now he gets to decide whether to enforce it.

In his speech Monday, Bush discussed the additional elements of freedom. “Today, the elected Palestinian legislature has no authority,” he observed. “A Palestinian state can only serve its citizens with a new constitution which separates the powers of government. … Local officials and government ministers need authority of their own and the independence to govern effectively. … [T]he Palestinian people lack effective courts of law and have no means to defend and vindicate their rights.”

How is Arafat answering this challenge? For one thing, he’s pledging to reform his government. His plan, unveiled today, promises many of the changes Bush demanded. It also includes a vow to “put into force all laws that have been passed.” Think about that for a minute. Arafat is offering a commitment to fulfill all the commitments he has failed to fulfill. Except this time he means it, really. What will it take to make sure he follows through? More than an election.

Meanwhile, Arafat is turning Bush’s words against him. Bush demanded elections and broader reforms necessary for a free society. Arafat is using the issue of elections to obscure the issue of reforms. That’s what Arafat’s comments yesterday—Bush “spoke about a Palestinian state and elections,” said Arafat—were supposed to achieve. And they’re succeeding. Everyone’s talking about whether Arafat will hold and win elections. Nobody’s talking about reform. Even Bush is falling into the trap of suggesting that elections will solve the problem. “I’ve got confidence in the Palestinians, when they understand fully what we’re saying, that they’ll make right decisions as to how we get down the road for peace,” Bush predicted today.

If Bush is as lucky as he’s been many times before—and if Arafat is as foolish as he’s been many times before—Arafat will save Bush. Arafat’s aides are already threatening not to hold elections until Israel fully withdraws its troops. Even then, they’re demanding that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, which Israel claims as Israeli territory, be allowed to vote in Palestinian elections. Bush had better hope that Arafat forces a choice between himself and democracy. Otherwise, Bush will get half of what he asked for and never see the rest.