Palestinian Elections: It's the Voting System, Stupid!

June 1, 2006 |
Hamas' overwhelming victory is the result of a poorly designed electoral system.
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Much hand wringing and second guessing have been produced from the recent Palestinian elections that resulted in Hamas, a group on the Bush administration's terrorist list, winning a sizable majority of legislative seats. Analysts on the right and left have scrambled for a response, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying "nobody saw it coming."

The problem is, it never came -- if the "it" is supposed to be overwhelming Palestinian support for Hamas. The truth is, the electoral system used for the elections gave grossly unrepresentative results in which Hamas won nearly a super majority of seats even though they didn't win even a majority of votes. The Hamas "victory" was the result of a poorly planned democracy that could have been righted by employing the electoral methods used in the recently successful Iraqi elections.

The Palestinian elections used a combination of a U.S.-style winner-take-all electoral system and a more European-style proportional voting system. Palestinian voters had a vote for their favorite political party (the proportional vote) and votes for individual candidates (the winner-take-all vote). Unfortunately, the winner-take-all part broke down and Hamas won way more seats than their votes should have given them.

Look at the actual results. In the proportional vote, which is a national vote and therefore the best measure of the overall support for each political party, Hamas won about 45 percent of the popular vote and about the same percentage of seats -- 30 of 66 seats, no majority there. The incumbent party, Fatah, won 41 percent of the popular vote and 27 of 66 seats, only three behind Hamas.

So the election was actually quite close, and if those were the only election results, Hamas wouldn't have won a majority of seats and would have needed to form a coalition with other political parties. A likely possibility is Hamas would have formed a grand coalition with Fatah, which would have provided a stable transition.

Instead, the winner-take-all seats, which are allocated by local districts, completely threw the election to Hamas. Though Hamas and Fatah had nearly equal support nationwide, Hamas won 46 of 66 seats -- 70percent -- in the winner-take-all districts and Fatah won only 16 district seats.

Overall, Hamas won a stunning 58 percent of legislative seats even though their national support was only around 45 percent. It was a tragic breakdown of the electoral system. Instead of talking about negotiating a coalition government for the Palestinians, the talk now is about picking through the shards, figuring how to salvage the roadmap to peace.

It didn't have to be this way. The designers of democracy in Palestine had only to look to neighboring Iraq to figure out how to design a better method that would have produced more representative results and provided more stability for the peace process.

On December 15, 2005, Iraq held its second ever election, with Iraq's eighteen provinces electing 275 members of parliament using a proportional voting method. Each political party was awarded legislative seats in direct proportion to their vote in each province. The proportional method was intended partly to better include Sunni Muslims. Turnout was about 70 percent with exceptionally high participation among Sunnis.

Most importantly, due to the use of the proportional method, when the dominant Shiite party failed to win a majority of the popular vote, they also failed to win a majority of legislative seats. Surely if they had used a winner-take-all method like that used in the Palestinian elections, the Shiite bloc would have won a strong legislative majority even though they lacked a popular majority.

Instead, now the Shiites in Iraq are forced to negotiate with their legislative partners, including the Sunnis and Kurds, producing a government that preserves the fragile consensus in Iraq. It is really a shame that for all the billions of dollars in aid poured into Palestine, no one had the sense to make sure the elections were conducted using a method like the one used in Iraq that would guarantee representative results.

While various political analysts are saying Hamas' victory is a disaster built on short-sighted policies by the Palestinians, Israel, and the U.S., the truth is a bit more mundane. Hamas' overwhelming victory is the result of a poorly designed electoral system. Unfortunately, when you are trying to jumpstart democracy, the devil is in the details.

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