The Washington Times

The Israeli military action in the West Bank, so it was widely said as events unfolded, led to huge upswings in the popularity both of Ariel Sharon among Israelis and of Yasser Arafat among Palestinians. In making their respective judgments, the two populations had spoken, vindicating the contending hard-line approaches favored by each of the two leaders. Or so it was said.

By now, some of Mr. Arafat’s bloom seems to be fading among Palestinians, as calls become more widespread not only from outsiders but among Palestinians themselves for “reform” of Mr. Arafat’s corrupt, inefficient, undemocratic quasi-government in the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps Palestinians themselves are moving toward a post-Arafat frame of mind.

But let us pause a moment before Mr. Arafat gets swept away by the public opinion that once sustained him (should this outcome actually come to pass) and scrutinize what the popularity meant in the first place. In the main, commentators treated the support he enjoyed among Palestinians as essentially the same not only in degree but also in character as the support Mr. Sharon enjoyed among Israelis. In fact, while both may have enjoyed high support, its nature was very different.

Mr. Sharon enjoyed the support of a population accustomed to robust political debate and to settling questions (sometimes life-and-death questions) by means of a democratically elected, representative government accountable to the people. Mr. Arafat is an autocrat presiding over a population with no such democratic tradition and no real means of holding its political leadership accountable. Popular support means different things under each set of conditions.

What Mr. Sharon has, and what Mr. Arafat lacks, is democratic legitimacy. Although the international community has long recognized Mr. Arafat (first as chairman of the PLO, then as president of the Palestinian Authority) as the leader of the entity that is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian people have never been made to (or have never been given an opportunity to) choose a leader. Some would reply, “but they would choose Mr. Arafat.” They might well. But popularity is not the same as democratic legitimacy.

By definition, the winner of an election is the most popular of the candidates on the ballot. But the judgment of relative popularity comes at the culmination of the democratic process, and there is no substitute for all the other elements of the process leading up to that point.

Typically in a democracy, more than one person contends for each office. Seeking a role in politics does not constitute attempting to usurp power, as taking on an autocrat does. Candidates for office in a democracy are able to speak freely about political matters and are expected to air differing views, and in particular, opposition candidates are free to express their dissent from those in office. Autocracies may (or may not) allow a measure of personal liberty, but open dissent is typically punishable by imprisonment or worse. Democratic candidates fashion an appeal to voters, and voters choose from competing appeals. An autocrat never has to craft such an appeal; his rule is its own justification.

In democratic countries, political parties form in order to help members attain office, and as a general rule, parties “stand” for something in the minds of members and of voters. Candidates draw on the positive associations and work to overcome the negative associations. No candidate runs solely on the platform of desiring political power. Autocracies do not tolerate political parties, and it is impermissible to stand for something the autocrat opposes.

Democracies require words. In an autocracy, only the autocrat speaks, and only if he wishes. He will control the contents of the newspapers, or, if he prefers, decide there will be no newspapers. All others must remain silent on matters on which the autocrat (and he alone) decides to impose silence.

So, on one hand, the popular Ariel Sharon, whose popularity follows the democratic form. And on the other Yasser Arafat, whose popularity comes in the context of autocracy.

It is perfectly understandable that Palestinians, yearning for a state of their own, would rally around Mr. Arafat in a time of trouble. But what they have never done is validate Mr. Arafat’s leadership in the context of open contention over the substantive content of leadership.

The popularity of Mr. Sharon, in other words, is popularity in a system designed to discern and be governed by popular will. The popularity of Mr. Arafat is popularity in a system in which the popular will is either irrelevant or dangerous, to the extent unpopularity threatens to coalesce into actual opposition.

It’s mischievous to equate the two. We will find out how Mr. Sharon fares against his political opponents in the next election. Mr. Arafat spares himself such exercises and us the knowledge of what Palestinians would think given a system based on contending ideas.