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A historic vote Jan. 20 could be a small step toward democracy and a homeland for Palestinians

ON Saturday, the Palestinian people take a giant step toward their long-time desire for nationhood in part of what used to be called Palestine.

The event is an election for a president and a Palestinian National Council, a historic attempt to bring democracy to an Arab and largely Muslim people.

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The outcome is almost secondary to the fact that an election is being held at all, and that the newly elected leaders will rule over land handed back by Israel to Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza.

The campaign for this election - probably among the shortest in history at just two weeks - has captivated the majority of Palestinians here. Streets, buildings, telegraph poles, and overhead wires are wallpapered with a sea of faces vying for the 88 seats on the new Council.

The election, many political analysts and intellectuals say, could be a small step toward a truly democratic system.

With little history of Western-style democratic institutions in the Mideast, it is unclear whether the new Council will help establish democracy or pattern itself on the rest of the Arab world, where governments range from outright tyrannies to benevolent authoritarian regimes.

But several groups that violently oppose peace with Israel - such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas - are boycotting the election. This makes democracy-building more difficult.

''It is not enough to get people elected to the Council,'' says Rana Nashashibi, a candidate for the Council from the Palestine Peoples' Party. ''We will have to form pressure groups and lobbies to ensure accountability. It is the people who will have to ensure there is a democratic system.''

Skeptics, such as Riad Malki, argue that many political parties lack proper platforms. ''Many of those who gain seats will be either rich businessmen, who have the money to campaign, or members of big families,'' said Mr. Malki, a professor of engineering at Bir Zeit University. ''They don't belong to political parties, and they don't have a platform, so it will be easy for [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat to manipulate them if they are not gathered into a united front.

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''I fear we will become the worst copy of the worst Arab regime. We are no different from other Arabs. Arabs live under tyrants and accept their fate,'' he says.

But even though the election itself may not change Palestinian politics much, it still is an important first step, according to Sari Nusseibeh, a philosopher and rector of the al-Quds University in Jerusalem. ''Hopefully things will build up until we have a proper democratic institution,'' he stated in an interview in the weekly Jerusalem Report.

Other analysts agree that the Palestinians' history, their lack of a homeland, and the experience of Arab countries and Israel may have made them more eager than other Arabs for a democracy.

Yet there is no doubt that the Palestinians have a long way to go if they want a democracy. Eyad Sarraj, commissioner general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen's Rights, says that Palestinian political organizations have been ''authoritarian and oppressive'' throughout modern history.

''At the communal level, they are still in the tribal stage of development, where the clan is the main source of security and form of identity,'' he wrote in a recent issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal.

But within Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which led the resistance to Israel, there has been a tradition of tolerance of diversity and opposing views, according to Ziad Abu Amr, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University and an independent candidate for the Council. And others also say the fact that 60 to 70 percent of eligible Palestinian voters registered to vote is promising.

''In the past, lack of a central authority meant that the Palestinian movement made room for tolerance, pluralism, and a measure of democracy in bodies like the Palestinian Authority,'' Mr. Abu Amr says.

But it is unclear whether that legacy will persist in building a state. It may be that the creation of a central authority will put limitations on the continuation of that pluralistic tradition, he adds.

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, said that Israel's intervention in the election, to the point of determining the size of the Council, is hampering the creation of a democracy.

''Establishing a democracy in this environment is going to be very slow and difficult, but it's the only way to go. The alternative is violence, which brings a greater denial of human rights,'' Mr. Sourani said.

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