Q. What did Palestinians vote for yesterday?
A. They were electing the 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislative branch of the Palestinian Authority, which is the governing body for the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Voters filled out two ballots. On the first, they chose one of 11 national party lists, including those of Fatah and Hamas, which will fill half the seats according to proportional representation. On the other ballot, voters chose among party candidates and independents running in each geographical district. The number of seats in each district is based on population.
Q. What powers does the legislative council have?
A. Under the powerful rule of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, the council that was elected in 1996 rarely asserted its powers. Arafat's Fatah party dominated that council, and Hamas boycotted the previous vote. The new council, elected in a much more competitive environment, is likely to have more legitimacy and may try to flex its muscle. The Authority president is elected separately in a popular vote, and names the prime minister. But the legislative council must approve Cabinet members and sign off on the budget, and can hold a vote of no confidence. Diplomatic policy, such as negotiations with Israel, is set by the president, but the council's makeup will influence policy choices. Cabinet members do not have to be members of the council.
Q. Would a strong showing by Hamas freeze the peace process?
A. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel, and Israel rejects any talks with Hamas until it abandons that position and gives up its arms, so a Hamas victory could lead to deadlock. However, Hamas leaders say that they want to be part of a coalition government even if they win a majority of seats, and that they prefer for Hamas to run social welfare ministries and leave the top posts, including running foreign policy, to others. Some Israeli commentators say an elected government that includes Hamas will have more legitimacy to make a deal that will stick than Arafat's unelected Fatah did in 1993 -- when it pushed through the Oslo Accords over the objections of Hamas. The accords are now widely considered a failure.