Much hand-wringing and second-guessing have resulted since Hamas, a group on the Bush administration's terrorist list, won a sizable majority of legislative seats. Analysts on the right and left have been scrambling for a response, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying incredibly that "nobody saw it coming."
But closer scrutiny of the Palestinian election results reveals that Hamas is not as popular as it may seem. The problem is that the US-style electoral system used for the Palestinian elections gave grossly unrepresentative results in which Hamas won nearly a super-majority of seats even though they did not win even a majority of votes. If the Palestinians had employed the electoral methods used in many other democracies around the world, the story would have turned out very differently.
The Palestinian elections used a combination of a US-style winner-take-all electoral system and a more European-style proportional voting system. Palestinian voters had two votes, one for their favorite political party (the proportional vote) and another for individual candidates (the winner-take-all vote). Unfortunately, the winner-take-all part broke down and Hamas won many 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 44% of the popular vote and about the same percentage of seats -- 30 of 66, no majority there. The incumbent party, Fatah, won about 42% 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 would not 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 districts, completely threw the election to Hamas. Hamas won an average of only 39% of the vote in the winner-take-all districts, yet won 70% of those seats. That gave them 46 of 66 seats in the winner-take-all districts while Fatah won only 16 district seats.
Overall, Hamas won a stunning 56% of legislative seats even though their national support was around 44%, not much higher than Fatah's 42%. It was a tragic breakdown of the winner-take-all electoral system. Instead of talking about negotiating a coalition government for the Palestinians, since the election the talk has been about picking through the shards of the shattered roadmap to peace.
It didn't have to be this way. The designers of democracy in Palestine should have used an electoral system more like that used in the various European democracies. Even the method used in Iraq would have been better. Iraq used a system where each political party was awarded legislative seats in direct proportion to their share of the popular vote in each of 18 provinces.
Due to Iraq's proportional method, when the dominant Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite bloc would have won a strong legislative majority even though they lacked a popular majority. Instead, now the Shi'ites in Iraq have been forced to negotiate with their legislative partners, including the Sunnis and Kurds. While Iraq still suffers from a huge degree of ethnic strife, there's no question that a US-style winner-take-all system would have plunged that country even more quickly into civil war.
While various political analysts are saying the Hamas victory was a disaster built on shortsighted policies by the PLO, Israel and the US, the truth was a bit more mundane. This overwhelming victory is the result of a poorly designed electoral system. Unfortunately, when you are trying to jump-start democracy, the devil is in the details.
Steven Hill is director of New America Foundation's political reform program (www.NewAmerica.net/politicalreform) and author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy [PoliPointPress, May 2006].