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Mass Democracy Fails in Gaza

by Fred E. Foldvary

The civil war between the Fatah and Hamas parties in Gaza and the victory by Hamas militants is yet another example of the dismal failure of mass democracy. The main purpose of democracy is to prevent civil war. Large communities require leadership, and the two ways of selecting the leaders are with force or with choice. Democracy provides a means for the people to peacefully choose their leaders. But for that to work, the people must agree to accept the outcome.

For democracy to work well, the population must sympathize more with the concept of democracy than with their favored parties, ideologies, and policies. In the United States, many Democrats felt that the outcome of the election of 2000 was not decided fairly, yet the Democratic candidate and the people did not seek to overthrow the Republican victory, since to them preserving the rule of law was more important than forcibly contesting the result.

Such has not been the case in Iraq or Palestine, where the outcomes of the mass elections have not brought social peace. The Fatah party holds the presidency, while in January 2006, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat Al-Muqawama Al-Islamia or HAMAS), won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

In the Palestinian election, each voter casts two ballots. On one, a voter selects from one a list of political parties, using proportional representation. The other ballot is for candidates representing a geographical district; a voter can cast as many votes for candidates as there are seats, and the candidates with the highest vote totals are elected.

This election method is about as ideal as mass democracy can get. Minor parties, if they are not too tiny, can be represented, while local issues also get a voice. Yet it failed, because the chiefs of the parties and many of their followers refused to share power peacefully. With divided authority, there was an armed conflict to take control. Now with the Hamas victory in Gaza, the Palestinian National Authority is factually split into two governments, Hamas ruling in Gaza and Fatah ruling in the West Bank.

The alternative to mass democracy is small-group democracy, where all voting takes place only in very small groups. The residents of a village or city neighborhood elect a council. The higher-level government assures that the election process is honest. These local councils in Palestine would then elect representatives from their members to the governorates, the geographical administrative divisions of Palestine, such as Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, and Nablus in the West Bank, and Rafah, Gaza, and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.

The councils of the governorates would then elect representatives, from their members, to the the Palestinian Legislative Council. The PLC would then elect a president. With the president chosen by the majority of the PLC, there would not be a divided government. The losing party would be more likely to accept the outcome, as the bottom-up election process would make it much more difficult to forcibly overthrow the top chief, because the PLC would easily elect a new chief.

Democracy has not failed in Palestine. What has failed is voting "en masse." Even in a relatively small election as in Palestine, mass democracy has thousands of voters electing strangers. Even with proportional representation, the larger parties have the money to spread their propaganda via the mass media. Only in tiny elections on the scale of a thousand people can candidates become known personally. They can hold local meetings and distribute literature cheaply. Parties and special interests can be trumped by discussions and the character of the local candidates.

Now, even though most Palestinians wish to have a unified Palestine, their voting structure has led to violence and division. The Palestinian people should realize why their democracy has failed. The best thing now for Palestine is for a political party to arise and advocate changing to small-group democracy. Otherwise their voting will fail in its main purpose, social peace!

This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.