Unity Elections A Voting Voice for Palestinian Refugees and Diaspora

By Basema Salman and contributing researcher Hugo van Randwyck

Since the unforeseen outbreak of the Arab Spring, I have been watching the news differently. I have seen the overjoyed Egyptians, including some of the 10 million Egyptians living abroad, saying to the camera that they have waited so long for the day they could register and vote. Not only the Egyptian people, but also the Tunisians and Libyans have anticipated this historic moment for so long. Through the internationally recognised process called Out-of-Country Voting (OCV), Iraqi and Afghan refugees have also registered and voted in their country elections.

As a second-generation Palestinian refugee, my parents were forced as children to leave their towns in 1948. Throughout my life, I have lived involuntarily in different countries: Kuwait, Jordan, and the Netherlands, but never Palestine. Throughout the years, I’ve heard the unceasing echoing of many ineffective Palestinian politicians who break their promises, but not once have I heard the actual voice of the Palestinian refugees and diaspora. If this is news to politicians, then there is an even bigger opportunity to improve things. Our current politicians have lacked the skills to listen to the refugees and diaspora, include us, organise elections we can participate in, work with us as a team, communicate our cause effectively to people around the world, or nominate representatives supported by all Palestinians.  

The first Palestinian elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) were carried out in 1996. Within ten weeks, the new Central Elections Commission was set up, people were hired and trained, one million Palestinians were registered to vote, the election was carried out, the votes counted, and new representatives were elected. That was in ten weeks. Now it is 2012, sixteen years, or around 800 weeks, later, and no training of new staff has been done in the refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan, both neighbouring countries to Palestine. Both the camps and the diaspora are still without their own registration or voting process. They have no ability to elect people who can speak for them. Waiting has proved a waste of time. It is time for the refugees and diaspora to be proactive.

There are plans to elect a new Palestinian National Council (PNC) using an online registration and voting process. New elections for the PNC would also be a positive step. Many, including younger Palestinians who are fed up with all politicians and the general lack of progress, have promoted this idea. We believe part of the frustration is that the 60 per cent of Palestinians outside Palestine do not have a way to participate and elect people to speak for them. If Palestinian politics were a football match, the other team would have put eleven players on the pitch, while Palestine only put five, and left six sitting in the car park. Any guesses as to what the score of the game might be?

There are plenty of highly skilled Palestinians outside Palestine who could be an asset, if they could be elected. The media in the West is not good at giving a full picture of what has happened in Palestine since 1948. So something is really not working with two major areas: having good leaders who get results, and having leaders who can communicate effectively with the general public in Western countries. Elected leaders from the camps and the diaspora could contribute to both the negotiation and media efforts.

In the recent elections in Egypt, of around six million potential expatriate voters, only 600,000 or 10 per cent voted using the online voter registration process that was set up for them. We would like to see a 70 to 80 per cent turnout, or more, for Palestinian refugee and diaspora registration and voting. We believe our suggestions could create higher confidence and involvement and are relevant to reforming the PNC elections, reforming the PLC, and also reforming the presidential elections and referendums.

It’s time the voice of the Palestinian refugees and diaspora is heard in the world, thus unifying the voice of the Palestinians. A new Facebook page Hugo van Randwyck and I have been working on, “Palestine Unity Elections,” created in May 2012 is all about that. It’s a pro-democracy, grassroots movement addressing the wish of many Palestinians for fair representation. We have been in contact with Palestinians around the world and we have been getting encouraging support, including from the West Bank and Gaza!

Our proposed strategy would give between two and four million Palestinian refugees and members of the diaspora, of legal voting age, the chance to be registered. They would receive a voter registration card that would include their town and district of origin, e.g. Haifa, Jaffa, and Acre etc.  
What’s new about this Facebook page? It is positive and proactive with action ideas, photos, videos, links to articles, links to resources on voter registration and elections, updates on activities around the world, new developments, and forums. The information on the page is in both English and Arabic. In the first two weeks we reached 3,600 people around the world, from New Zealand, to Norway, to Ramallah.

The Facebook page suggests a voting process that is simple and uses tried and tested methods.

Firstly, we advocate using Out-of-Country Voting (OCV), a process used by other refugees around the world, which is internationally recognised and ensures international observers verify the election results at all stages. OCV was set up for 850,000 Afghan refugees in eighty days, so it can be done in a short space of time.

Secondly, we recommend every Palestinian refugee and member of the diaspora have a voter registration card with their town and district of origin on it, for example Haifa, Acre, or Jaffa. This will allow the world to see that there are 250,000 missing voters from Haifa, for example, or 300,000 from Jaffa. A lot of this is easy, since most refugees have UNWRA cards, although others would need people to vouch for them

Thirdly, refugees should be able to vote for people from their town and district of origin and place their ballot paper in boxes marked Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazareth, Tiberius, etc. So, even if the person elected lives in Lebanon, he or she will be able to represent Haifa or Acre and be a part of the negotiating team.

Fourthly, we believe the world media should watch as people are registered and place their votes into the marked district-of-origin ballot boxes. Let the world see that in 1948, Palestinian voters were expelled from the Holy Land and have been prevented from returning and voting.

Fifthly, the refugees, diaspora, West Bank, and Gaza should all vote on the same day in order to create Unity Elections

Finally, elections should be held every year for the first two or three years, so representatives have an incentive to perform and work together.

We are welcoming photos from Palestinians and supporters around the world holding their registration voting cards or any other helpful ideas. Palestinians can have a more proactive role in their right of return, and communicate with the West and the rest of the world in a language they understand. This initiative is trying a new approach to get past the bias and censorship in the Western media. 

Having said that, I believe that it is now time that Palestinians realise that what we have tried in the past sixty-four years hasn’t helped much. Refugees and the diaspora should be given a voting voice, just like any other Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza. This will let the world see and hear them. Just imagine that all Palestinians next year will celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Nakba by registering with voting cards mentioning their town of origin.

In summary, having the refugees be silent and invisible has not been helping. By letting the refugees and diaspora have a “voting voice” that will let the world see and hear them will help peace and progress.

By Basema Salman, a Palestinian living in the Netherlands.  Salman acts as a refugee integration consultant and is the leading administrator of “Palestine Unity Elections, Refugees, Diaspora, West Bank, Gaza”.  She can be reached on Email: palvotesunity@gmail.com.

This article first published in This Week In Palestine, July, 2012. www.thisweekinpalestine.com

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