RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Abbas and his government are rewriting economic, social and security laws for the Palestinian territories with little public oversight, Palestinian and Western officials say.
Reuters has obtained hundreds of Abbas decrees and a five-year legislative plan that could transform the Palestinian political and economic systems from top to bottom, yet which few of the four million residents of the territories have heard of.
Many of the proposed changes have long been sought by liberal reformers and could help promote foreign investment, but some constitutional experts and legislators contend that Abbas’s approach to legislating by decree lacks transparency and is part of an erosion of democratic institutions.
Some say Palestinian democracy, once held up as a model for other Arabs, has been suspended — both in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Abbas is based at Ramallah, and in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas Islamists seized full control a year ago.
A government spokesman defended the strategy as a necessity following last year’s rift between Abbas’s Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas that paralyzed parliament. The official said parliament would eventually be able to revise any or all of the new laws.
Hundreds of presidential decrees and other decisions have been issued by Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, since June 2007. That month, Abbas dismissed an elected Hamas-led government after Hamas routed the president’s Fatah faction in Gaza. He appointed his own administration in the West Bank.
Fayyad’s five-year plan envisages sweeping new laws covering six areas, documents show — economy, civil administration, infrastructure, culture and media, judiciary and social sector.
The 406 orders issued by Abbas and his government between June 2007 and June 2008, obtained by Reuters, show changes, big and small, covering anything from the budget to the tax code to the make-up of secretive military courts.
Along with dozens of awards, promotions and dismissals were new rules for Palestinian lending institutions, sweeping tax breaks for investors and businesses, and expanded powers for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the security forces.
Presidential aides say Abbas may rule by decree under the Basic Law when parliament, the Legislative Council, cannot meet.
A year after Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as president, Hamas won a parliamentary election in January 2006.
But Israel jailed some 40 of the group’s lawmakers. That and factional violence has stopped the 132-seat body from convening.
With Hamas effectively running all institutions unopposed in Gaza, a senior official in the West Bank who is involved with Fayyad’s legislative plan said new rules would be enacted using Abbas’s executive powers but parliament could later change them.
“This is not a comfortable position to be in. I am a democrat,” he told Reuters. “But ... you need to govern.”
Riyad al-Malki, Fayyad’s information minister, called the plan “temporary”. He said: “Once the Legislative Council takes its role, it can approve, cancel or amend any of the plan”.
But, Malki added: “We cannot create a legal vacuum because of the absence of the Legislative Council.”
Critics said executives in both territories were assuming legislative and judicial powers. Some said there was greater oversight even when Arafat towered over Palestinian affairs.
“This level of concentration of powers has not existed ever in the history of the Palestinian Authority, not even during Arafat’s time,” said Mustafa Barghouthi, who has sought to rally fellow parliamentarians to reassert their role in the process.
Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator from Fayyad’s own, small party, said: “During Arafat’s time, we had a functioning Legislative Council. Now the Council is not functioning at all and the executive is more powerful. We’re losing oversight.”
Azmi al-Shuaibi of the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity, a Palestinian watchdog, said Abbas and Fayyad have sought advice from experts but cautioned: “The absence of opposition within the system, within the process, is dangerous.”
Barghouthi, a prominent independent, said the government had “not made any effort to coordinate with members of the Legislative Council, not even with democrats or Fatah members”.
“How could people who were presented as democrats practice such an authoritarian approach?” Barghouthi asked.
Malki said the government was getting “input” on drafting legislation and that there would be more oversight in future.
Fayyad’s 2008-2012 legislative plan envisages financial laws governing the capital markets, intellectual property rights and monetary policy, aimed at meeting “the requirements needed to join the World Trade Organization”, documents show.
Asem Khalil, a law professor at Birzeit University, said the legislative plan contained many measures, including draft competition and criminal laws, that had been sought by reformers for years but had yet to win parliamentary approval.
He said many of these changes would be “a step forward taken a bit late” but expressed concern that some laws were “being put forward now as fast as possible to take advantage of the time left before any change in this government”.
Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor who had advised the Palestinians on drafting a constitution, said Fatah and Hamas were both “subject to contrary impulses — to govern, to establish legitimacy and to outmaneuver the other in terms of Palestinian public opinion”.
Brown said the legislative plan was an attempt by Fayyad’s government to “operate normally in an abnormal situation”.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald