As Jonathan Edelstein noted a few days ago at The Head Heeb, two factions of Fatah managed to avoid running separately in the Palestinian elections scheduled for January 25, thanks to a late, creative, ruling by the electoral court to delay the registration deadline.
Younger Fatah activists had split off and formed a party called “Future” (an interesting, if presumably unintentional parallel to the not-so-young Ariel Sharon’s splinter of Likud: “Forward”).
The delay in the registration deadline permitted the two groups to reconcile and submit a joint list of candidates. Had they failed to do so, as Jonathan notes, an already weak party system would have been made even weaker. On the other hand, the fact that they will not be running separately denies voters a chance to choose clearly between the old guard and the new blood. Still more to the point, the Palestinian electoral system effectively gave the two Fatah wings no other choice (even if they almost blew it).
The Palestinian legislative elections will be held under a variation of a mixed-member system: Half the 132 seats will be elected by plurality in multi-seat districts* and the other half by closed party list PR in a single Palestinian territorywide district (Ste.-LaguÃ« divisors, 2% threshold). The nominal tier of regional multi-seat plurality constituencies has an average magnitude of around four seats, and the voter may vote for as many candidates as there are seats in the district.
The system is thus mixed-member majoritarian (MMM, also known as parallel). That is, unlike in MMP systems, the share of votes won by each party will not determine the overall make-up of the parliament. Instead, each party’s share of votes determines only the share of seats it wins in the party-list tier, and then these seats are simply added to the totals won by each party’s candidates in the separate nominal-tier races.**
What that means is that a party that wins many nominal-tier seats will retain much of its seat-winning bonus–unlike in MMP. And given multi-seat plurality, the votes-to-seats disproportionality of this tier could be very large (unless many voters vote less-than-straight tickets, that is mixing and matching across parties).
While I do not know the regional breakdown of Fatah factional and Hamas support, with a recent territorywide polling breakdown that Jonathan gives, it is clear that two separate Fatah lists, also running separate full slates of candidates in the nominal tier, could lose badly to Hamas (especially given that Hamas voters are probably likely to be more disciplined, i.e. likely to vote the full slate of Hamas-nominated candidates in their districts). A unified Fatah list, on the other hand, should beat Hamas.
According to the poll, Hamas is at 31.4%, Future 26.8, and “official” Fatah at 17.7. If that breakdown held, the MMM system could give Hamas, running against separate Fatah factional slates, a seat share much greater than its vote share. But by rejoining forces, Fatah, if it can hold the combined 44.5% that the poll shows for its two wings, almost surely would win a majority of seats under MMM. It is worth noting, however, that this is a rather big “if” because, given the Fatah divisions, many voters may refuse to vote for the full Fatah slate in their nominal-tier district. That is, some voters may vote only for the candidates they recognize as “Future” or “official” Fatah members, and not for the candidates of both factions. To the extent that happens, and Hamas voters are more unified, the result could still favor Hamas relative to Fatah in the votes-to-seats conversion. The two Fatah factions are still better off running together–and trying to encourage full-slate voting–than they would be running separately.
The electoral system really gave them no other choice than to come back together, or else forfeit the leading position in parliament to Hamas. In that sense, then, the recent brinksmanship was sort of an unofficial “primary” by which the Future faction sought to get better nominations than the official Fatah had previously offered it. Apparently, it has worked, albeit only after armed skirmishes between the factions.
In another post a few days earlier, Jonathan commented on the benefits to a possible further delay in the Palestinian elections (which at one time had been set for last July):
If Israel votes first, it is likely that a stable center-left government will be established, and the new government will be able to facilitate the Palestinian election process without worrying about its standing in the polls. This, in turn, will increase the odds of a more moderate Palestinian parliament being elected. If the Palestinians vote first, the situation will be precisely the opposite: election-year politics will prevent Israel from making the concessions that might boost Fatah’s electoral chances, and a strong Hamas performance in January will give the right-wing parties a campaign issue for March.
*With one proviso: There are guarantees that a fixed number of seats must be won by Christians, so in districts where Christian seats are set aside, some non-Christian candidates might be skipped in favor of one or more Christians with fewer votes. (This mechanism is similar to the women’s-representation provision in Afghanistan’s SNTV system.)
**To my knowledge, MMP has never been used with a nominal tier of multi-seat districts. It could be done, in principle, but doing so would make it all the more important that the list-PR tier be really large (not less than 50%) in order to achieve proportionality.