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Palestinian Election Law Criticized as Favoring Arafat, Clans

December 4, 1995

SAWAHRA, West Bank (AP) _ To see how important political ties and kinship are in the first Palestinian general election, take a seat on a mattress in a local clan leader’s house and listen to the candidates debate:

``All parties and candidates should have the same chance,″ Zuhaira Kamal says. ``Elected people should be qualified. You shouldn’t vote for personal reasons.″

The polite silence that greets her remarks is sign that Kamal, a politician and women’s rights activist from Jerusalem, has no strong clan or political connections with the 70 men seated before her.

Jamil Salhut, a village teacher and columnist for a local newspaper, gets a very different reception.

``There is no need to introduce myself,″ he said. ``Everybody knows me.″

Skipping the political analysis, Salhut sprinkles his talk with jokes and stories from the Koran, the Muslim holy book. When he finishes, the villagers _ many of whom belong to the same clan he does _ applaud loudly.

Important political and personal ties give candidates everywhere an advantage, but in the Palestinian territory’s Jan. 20 vote a winner-takes-all formula may keep smaller constituencies, such as Kamal’s, from gaining any representation in a new legislature.

An election law approved last week by Arafat’s Cabinet sets up 16 districts with varying numbers of seats based on population size. In each district, the party or coalition that wins the most votes gets all the seats.

Critics say the system hurts the chances of small, religious-based and leftist opposition groups and gives an unfair advantage to candidates supported by PLO leader Yasser Arafat and by large clans.

Kamal has no constituency in the Jerusalem district, which includes parts of the West Bank, where she must run. After more than a decade of political involvement and work to improve the plight of Palestinian women, her supporters are spread out throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Another candidate without the right connections, Nabiha Abu Rumila, has reported getting death threats since announcing plans to run in Hebron. Abu Rumila, a longtime activist in the PLO’s Fatah movement, believes the faction won’t support her because she doesn’t have a powerful family, political ties or money.

Of the 1.2 million Palestinians of voting age in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, more than 1 million have registered to vote in the election.

PLO officials hope for widespread participation by the opposition, especially the Islamic militant group Hamas, to give legitimacy to the new government. But Arafat’s Cabinet rejected proposals to adopt proportional representation, based on the overall vote totals for each party, that would have given the opposition a better chance of election to the 82-seat legislature.

`` A law that ignores the presence of political organizations does not inspire us to take part,″ said Sheikh Jamal Salim, a Hamas leader.

``In the first draft we wrote, we suggested proportional representation,″ said Fouad Shehadeh, a prominent Palestinian lawyer who helped write the law. But the election committee ``made a lot of changes,″ he said.

Criticism has come from Arafat supporters as well.

``We suggested a double system _ election for a list based on proportional representation, in addition to individual candidates,″ Youth and Sports Minister Azmi Shuaibi told The Associated Press.

Israeli political scientist Moshe Maoz, head of the Truman Institute, a Hebrew University think-tank, said the elections would be valid despite the winner-take-all system.

``In each democracy you have constraints. This is one,″ he said. ``This system is geared to give a majority to the PLO, but it doesn’t exclude others. It’s up to the voters. The voters can always surprise.″

In addition to choosing the council members, voters in all districts will take part in electing a ``rais″ _ Arabic for president or chairman _ and there is little doubt of Arafat’s victory.

``So Arafat will tell the elected members, you represent your clans, your districts _ but I am the only one who is elected by the entire Palestinian people,″ said Azmi Bishara, a philosophy professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

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