by Mark Tessler
At a time when there is more uncertainty than ever about the future of governance and political leadership in the West Bank and Gaza, it may be useful to consider the political orientations and preferences of ordinary Palestinian citizens. For much of the 1990s, from the time of the Oslo agreement until the outbreak of the current intifada, support for the regime led by Yasser Arafat and Fateh remained fairly constant at around 40-45 percent. Support for Islamic factions, primarily Hamas but also Islamic Jihad, declined from around 20 percent during the early years of this period to about 15 percent or even less by the late 1990s. Support for all other factions, including both leftists and independents, totaled 30-35 percent in the early post-Oslo period but it, too, had declined by the end of the decade, being no more than 20 percent in 1999. Only support for “None of the Above” increased during this period, reaching 35 percent in 1999 and reflecting growing popular discontent with the way the Palestinian territories were being governed. (1)
Changes Since September 2000
The situation has changed considerably since the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in September 2000. Views about Yasser Arafat are complicated. There was dissatisfaction with many aspects of his leadership, including both the corruption and cronyism that have become widespread and his steadfast opposition to any sharing of political authority. On the other hand, he remained the embodiment of Palestinian national aspirations, and his treatment by the Israeli government caused many who might under other circumstances be more critical to rally to his cause. Beyond Arafat himself, however, support for Hamas, and to a lesser extent Islamic Jihad, increased dramatically during the last four years. It is currently in the range of 70 percent. Much of the support for Islamist factions appears to be instrumental, based less on the appeal of their ideology than on their role in delivering services at the grassroots level and, equally, on the absence of any credible and appealing alternative.
Preferences of Ordinary Men and Women
Against this background, and with Palestinians discussing whether and at what levels to hold elections, information about the political system preferences of ordinary men and women may be particularly instructive. The present report draws upon a public opinion survey carried out in December 2003 to shed light on these political orientations. Rather than assessing the degree of support for particular leaders or factions, however, it examines the kind of political system that is favored by Palestinians. It asks, in other words, not by whom but how ordinary citizens would like their political community to be organized and governed.
The survey was organized by the author, with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, and carried out by the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR). Khalil Shikaki, PCPSR director, collaborated on the design of the research, as well as how it was conducted. The survey is also being administered in several other Arab countries as part of a larger comparative investigation of the nature and determinants of attitudes toward governance in the Arab world. Multi-stage area probability sampling was used to select respondents in the West Bank and Gaza. This involved randomly selecting “counting areas” based on the 1997 census, randomly selecting households within each counting area, and then randomly selecting within each household one person over the age of 18 to be interviewed. A total of 1,320 individuals were interviewed.
The first set of findings to be presented concerns attitudes and preferences relating to political systems in general and to democracy in particular. Figures 1 and 2 present the distribution of responses to the following two sets of questions:
I am going to describe various types of political systems and ask what you think about each as a way of governing our country. For each one, would you say it is a very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad way of governing your country?
-The systems described are: Strong Ruler, Experts Rule, Military Rule and Democracy.
I am going to read a list of things that people sometimes say about a democratic political system. Could you please tell me if you agree strongly, agree, disagree or disagree strongly?
-Three questions ask whether democracy leads to the following problems: Economy Runs Badly, Too Indecisive, Too Little Order.
- A fourth question asks whether, despite any problems, democracy is still the best form of government.
High Support for Democracy
Figure 1 shows that support for democracy is higher than support for any other political system; and Figure 2 shows that, regardless of whether they believe there to be problems associated with democracy, most respondents believe democracy is still the best form of government. More specifically, 86 percent consider democracy to be a good or very good way of governing “our country,” and 80 percent judge democracy to be the best form of government. A question being investigated in the larger study, which is beyond the scope of the present report and thus can only be acknowledged, concerns the understanding that people have of democracy: whether they express support for democracy because they understand and embrace its principles and are thus genuine democrats; or whether they simply believe democracy will improve their lives and thus might be termed instrumental democrats.
Role of Religion
Democracy, whether embraced for reasons of principle or instrumental reasons, is not necessarily defined in secular terms. Figure 3 presents the distribution of responses to the following questions about the degree to which religious officials should play a leading role in political affairs.
Please indicate for each of the following statements whether you agree strongly, agree, disagree or disagree strongly:
It would be better for our country if more people with strong religious beliefs hold public office.
Men of religion should have not have any influence over decisions of the government.
The distribution of responses to each of the preceding questions is very similar, and in each case there is a roughly even division between those who favor and those who oppose a strong association between religion and politics. More specifically, 52 percent strongly agree or agree, and 48 percent disagree or strongly disagree, that it would be better for the country if more people with strong religious beliefs hold public office. Similarly, 56 percent strongly agree or agree, and 44 percent disagree or strongly disagree, that men of religion should have influence over the decisions of the government.
The relationship between attitudes toward democracy and views about the political role of religion are shown in Figure 4. The two items measuring attitudes toward democracy have been combined to form a four-point scale, ranging from very strong support to no support. The question asking whether it would be better if more people with strong religious beliefs held political office is used to assess views about the relationship between religion and politics. These two measures are dichotomized and then cross-tabulated in the contingency table shown in the figure, which thus yields the following four-fold categorization:
Support for democracy and for a strong political role for religion: 23.9 percent.
Support for democracy but not for a strong political role for religion: 30.1 percent.
Support for a strong political role for religion but not support for democracy: 27.2 percent.
Support neither for democracy nor for a strong political role for religion: 8.8 percent.
Figure 4 shows that while there is broad support for democracy, there is disagreement about whether democratic politics should assign an important role to religious authorities. Among Palestinians who express strong support for democracy, a majority embraces secularism but almost 40 percent do not favor a secular conception of democracy. Additionally, more than one-quarter of all responds endorse a political formula that assigns importance to religion but does not attach much importance to democracy.
Attitudes According to Age and Education
The final set of findings examines the distribution of these attitudes and preferences across demographic categories based on age and education. There are three age categories: under 30, 30-49, and 50 and over. There are two education categories: less than high school and high school or more. Figure 5 shows the number respondents in the six resulting age and education categories. As expected, younger men and women are more likely than their older counterparts to be better educated. Figure 6 shows for each of the six demographic categories the distribution of preferences for the various political formulae shown in Figure 4.
Figure 6 reveals a number of noteworthy patterns about the demographic distribution of political system preferences. First, there is surprisingly little difference in aggregate support for democracy across the six demographic categories. Taken together, those who support democracy with a prominent role for religion and those who support a more secular version of democracy represent 45-55 percent of the respondents in each demographic category. The figure dips to 46 percent among less well-educated respondents under 30, and it rises to 55 percent among better-educated individuals in the 30-49 age group. This narrow range of variation indicates considerable similarity in aggregate support for democracy among Palestinians who differ in age and education.
Second, moving beyond undifferentiated support for democracy, Figure 6 shows that among Palestinians who express strong or very strong support for democracy, less well-educated individuals prefer a political model that incorporates a prominent role for religion more frequently than a secular model, whereas better-educated respondents prefer a secular model more frequently than one that assigns an important role to religion. The latter pattern is particularly pronounced among better-educated respondents over the age of 30. This finding shows the impact of education on attitudes toward the political role of religion among men and women who support democracy. Among respondents in each age category, and especially among those over 30, better-educated and less well-educated advocates of democracy differ significantly in their views about the appropriate relationship between religion and politics. Put differently, better-educated and less well-educated men and women do not differ very much in the degree of their support for democracy, but they do differ significantly with respect to the kind of democracy they support.
Growing Support for Political Islam
Third, support for a strong connection between religion and politics but not for democracy, is the most frequently preferred political formula among all respondents with less than a high school education, regardless of age. It is also the most frequently preferred alternative among better-educated respondents under the age of 30. This means that among respondents in these four demographic categories - less well-educated individuals in all age groups and younger individuals in both educational categories the number of respondents who favor a strong connection between religion and politics, either within or not within a democratic context, exceeds the number of respondents who favor democracy, either with or without a strong religious dimension. Put differently, this means that with the exception of well- educated men and women over the age of 30, support for political Islam in one form or another is not only strong, it is also stronger than support for democracy in one form or another.
Finally, there appears to be an important generational split pertaining to preferences about governance among better-educated respondents. Individuals 30 and over are more likely than respondents in any other demographic category to favor democracy and secularism, to support democracy strongly or very strongly but to disagree with the proposition that it would be better for the country if more people with strong religious beliefs held public office. By contrast, those under 30 are much more likely not only to favor a strong connection between religion and politics but to favor a political system that is not democratic in character. The views of these younger individuals may evolve as they grow older, or their current attitudes may remain unchanged, reflecting the basic political learning that sometimes marks an age cohort whose introduction to political life takes place during a distinctive historical era. Only time will tell which is the case. For the present, however, it appears that among better-educated individuals, from whose ranks will come most of the leaders of Palestinian society, there is a significant division of opinion about the way the Palestinian political community should be governed.
Findings Salient to Many Arab Countries
Concerns about governance, including debates about democracy and the political role of religion, are by no means unique to the Palestinians. The issues explored in this article are highly salient in many Arab countries, and in many other countries, as well. Accordingly, as noted earlier, the West Bank and Gaza survey reported here is part of a larger comparative and cross-national study. A major purpose of this larger project is not only to discern citizen attitudes and preferences pertaining to governance, but also to chart the locus of important patterns and relationships, to determine which patterns and relationships are broadly generalizable, and which, if any, obtain only in political communities with particular attributes and experiences. Some very preliminary conclusions, based on a comparison of findings from Palestine and Jordan, suggest that similarities may be more important than differences, although this aspect of the research is still at an early stage. In any event, when completed, this analysis will shed light not only on the nature and distribution of Palestinian views about how their community should be governed but also on the degree to which these political orientations are a product of the Palestinians’ unique situation or, alternatively, are shaped by broader currents and thus are similar to those found in other countries.
1 See Mark Tessler and Jodi Nachtwey. “Palestinian Political Attitudes: An Analysis of Survey Data from the West Bank and Gaza.” Israel Studies 4 (Spring 1999): 22-43.