Palestinian Elections – Hope or Futility

After a fifteen-year hiatus, on 15 January 2021, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazan), the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the State of Palestine, issued a decree. There would be elections in 2021:

  • general legislative elections on 22 May 2021
  • presidential elections on 31 July 2021
  • elections to the National Council of the PLO representing Palestinians in Palestine as well as the diaspora on 31 August 2021.

Cynicism about the possibility of such elections will not help. Understanding the obstacles and challenges will.

The commitment to elections was a direct response to the election of the Biden administration, which, after the experience with Trump, now has more leverage with the Palestinians than heretofore. There is also a recognition that the next two years will probably offer a last chance to achieve a two-state solution under the auspices of the Oslo Accords. Joe Biden has offered his commitment to a two-state solution.

Of course, there will remain a radical asymmetry by the two sides with the Palestinians continuing to depend on international intervention through lawfare and economic boycotts to advance their position. On the other hand, given the persistence and growth of the right in Israel, Palestinians remain largely pessimistic about the prospect of any breakthrough, especially given the 710,000 settlers now living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They suffer from chronic political fatigue. The Abraham Accords did not help with their morale. They recognize that, although the EU and international community can exert pressure on their behalf, only Israel can make peace with the Palestinians. A majority of youth now support a one-state solution.

To run the elections and ensure they will be fair, back in October 2002 a Central Election Commission (CEC) authorized setting up an election in accordance with the General Elections Law of 1995. The CEC will be responsible for the preparation, organization, management and supervision of the elections and, more generally, ensure their integrity and that the freedom to vote is respected and protected.

On 24 January, the CEC under the chair, Hanna Nasser, invited the European Parliament and the EU to appoint observers. However, in past elections, the real significant problem has not been the actual conduct of elections, but the selection of those who can run. Dr. Dalal Iriqat, a weekly columnist for AlQuds since 2016, who advised the Strategic Communications at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) during 2017-18 and served as the senior policy consultant for the UNDP Human Development Report for Palestine in 2015, is the daughter of the late Saeb Erekat, the perennial veteran peace negotiator who died from COVID-19 on 10 November 2020. She commented that the real issue for Palestinians is not fair elections per se, but whether there will be enough women, enough new and young faces (everyone seems at least united in recognizing the generational divide), or will the election be a re-run of the old boys network that has dominated Palestinian politics for such a long time?

Hamas has its own problems. Hamas is no longer the revered cheerleader in opposition as it was in 2006. Hamas continues to refuse to reject violence, except as an interim tactic, to insist on a unified state in all of Palestine controlled by Palestinians and to govern as a theocracy. Given the unending siege, an unemployment record of over 50% and three futile wars with Israel, Hamas was in danger of collapsing two years ago, but managed to recover, according to a Fatah spokesman, only because it diverted internal opposition towards a “peaceful protest” at the Israeli fence separating Gaza, with drastic results. Hamas has agreed to participate in the elections, accepting a number of restrictions, but has refused to surrender its weapons,

Observers who arrive during the week of an election cannot do anything about the choice of candidates. They really only observe the technicalities and not the whole process of making a democratic system work. Nevertheless, the EU observers, and other invited democratic government representatives, will at least be invited to be accredited observers to ensure that the norms of democracy and good governance are observed and remain transparent when it comes to the elections themselves. Since the election decree was issued, there have been doubts about whether there would be any elections at all. Most observers, including myself, were sceptical. Nevertheless, very recently, optimism has displaced pessimism and there now seems to be a reasonable chance that elections will go ahead.

On 10 February in Cairo, various Palestinian factions met and agreed to hold the elections and that all parties would abide by the presidential decree, that the elections would be held not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but in East Jerusalem as well, and that the various parties would abide by the results. Judges from Jerusalem (1), the West Bank (4) and the Gaza Strip (4) would constitute an Electoral Cases Court to both monitor the election and adjudicate disputes. Uniformed police from the West Bank would secure polling stations there, but the method of doing so in Gaza was no settled..

On 21 February, Abbas issued a decree ensuring Christians would have a minimum of seven seats in the next parliament. The secretary-general of Fatah’s Central Committee, Jibril Rajoub, and the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, Saleh Al-Arouri, on 28 February 2021 met in Cairo and agreed to the list of nominated judges. Another important step had been taken to enhance optimism.

In addition to Hamas and Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) will submit a list and contest the elections on a resistance but nevertheless non-violent platform. So will the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP) and the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) but not Islamic Jihad which resolved to boycott any election conducted under the umbrella of the Oslo accords. Bassam Salihi, secretary-general of the PPP, called on left-wing popular and democratic forces to run a unified democratic and popular bloc ticket, but that seems unlikely at present.

Perhaps most importantly, the various factions agreed that freedom of expression in the run-up to the election would be guaranteed and protected. Hamas and Fatah detainees held by the other side would be released from prison. On 22 February, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh charged Hamas with holding Fatah prisoners and demanded the release of 85 political detainees. On 25 February, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza released 45 Fatah members from prison being held on security charges but denied holding any additional political prisoners; “all prisoners in Gaza are either jailed or convicted in criminal or security cases.” Shtayyeh denied that there were any political detainees in Palestinian Authority prisons. Accusations criss-crossed even though there had been an agreement that there would be a cessation of political prosecutions “in order to provide an appropriate environment for free and fair elections.” Given the relatively small numbers, however, this dispute is not likely to impede the holding of the elections. If plans fall apart, these charges will be resurrected. The coming meeting in Cairo this week will review the preparations for the elections as well as take up the contentious issue of how to conduct elections in East Jerusalem.

By 1 March, the Electoral Commission had registered 2.622 million voters, or 93% of the 2.809 million eligible and is now open to hearing claims and objections, begins March 1. Though there have been a few reported cases of electoral list and polling booth tampering, particularly in one district of Hebron by Hamas supporters, this phase has progressed generally without incident. Other issues have yet to be settled. As listed by Hani al-Masri the director of the Ramallah-based Masarat think tank, they include:

  • lowering the age of candidates
  • raising the percentage of women’s participation [currently a 26% minimum)
  • regulating the resignations of public employees
  • lowering the fees for participating lists (now $20,000)
  • resolving which police force will guard election booths in Gaza 
  • determining whether the presidential election is for the president of Palestine as well as for the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

However, past progress and resolutions on issues in dispute have increased the belief that elections will actually be held. The idea of a joint Hamas-Fatah list seems to have been dropped, but it has yet to be seen whether Hamas will retain its commitment not to run a candidate for president not to take the positions of the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister in any national unity government.

However, other very serious issues remain. One relates to negotiations with Israel over elections in East Jerusalem, But even before then, both Hamas and Fatah have to iron out internal divisions within each organization. Hamas has evidently resolved or is on the verge of resolving its internal divisions by agreeing to divide the presidency of the party within versus outside Palestine, with the former head of Hamas’ politburo, Khaled Meshaal, becoming Hamas’ leader outside of Palestine and Ismael Haniyeh retaining his leadership of the Hamas politburo within Palestine.

However, the divisions within Fatah go much deeper. There are fourteen Palestinian parties competing. In reality, there are four main groups in competition which have to decide whether they will run as a joint list or whether they will run as separate lists, thereby weakening their position in competing with Hamas. Abbas has been adamant in insisting that no one affiliated with Fatah can run of a separate list.

Those main factions other than the main Fatah group under Abbas include:

  • one led by Marwan Barghouti who is now serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison;
  • Nasser al-Qudwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Fatah Central Committee member, a former Palestinian Foreign Minister and the long-term head of the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations, backs Barghouti if he decides to run, but promises to run on a separate list of his own if Barghouti decides not to run and has organized a list under the banner of the Palestinian National Democratic Forum, against the powerful threats of Abbas;
  • a list under the banner of the Democratic Reformist Current led by renegade Fatah leader, Mohammed Dahlan, now living in exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In addition to the major obstacle to holding elections, internal Palestinian divisions, Israel, which has its own elections scheduled in May, is a problem. In advance of those Israeli elections, the Israeli government has been resistant to putting forth its own position, especially with respect to allowing residents of East Jerusalem to vote. Israel permitted votes in the 2006 elections, but under very restrictive conditions.

Until the Israeli elections are held, Israel sees no advantage in declaring its position both within Israel and with respect to its relations with Palestine since the plans for an election may fall apart without any intervention by Israel. Nevertheless, Israel must take a stand soon after the 23 March elections since the internal Palestinian divisions are compounded due to the lack of any position from the Israelis. “The record shows Israeli restrictions in past elections. And we expect that it will be more difficult this time around. Intimidation and false information might discourage Palestinians from participating.”

Will Israel allow the use of post offices for the previously approved number of approximately 5,500 people from Jerusalem in 2006? More than 18,000 voters officially participated in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections in East Jerusalem, but Dr. Galul Iriqat, if I heard and recorded her correctly, claimed that actually only 600 votes were cast in post offices and only another 6,000 voted elsewhere, considerably less than the 18,000 claimed voters. Elected lawmakers from East Jerusalem were ejected from the city after the election.

At most, post offices in East Jerusalem have a capacity for 6.300 voters on one election day. The rest of Palestinian East Jerusalemites will have to vote in 14 suburban polling stations. Israel permitted East Jerusalemite Palestinians to vote in 2005 and in 1996. Will Israel intimidate East Jerusalem voters by taking photos of them, with the implicit threat that they could lose their residency in Jerusalem?

“We referred to signed agreements that allow Jerusalemites to vote and run for Palestinian elections. We reminded them of international law and human rights conventions and principles, particularly the right to self-determination, and asked them to bear their responsibilities accordingly.” Abbas has insisted that the election will not be held unless Palestinian East Jerusalemites are permitted to vote. Even if a vote is held, a large turnout is not expected since Palestinian Jerusalemites are especially pessimistic about the ability of the PA to do anything about their status. It is estimated that most want to remain as permanent residents of Israel but also be full citizens of an independent Palestine.

In the West Bank, Israel has already arrested top Hamas cadres and leaders and intimidated other potential Hamas candidates so they will not run in the upcoming elections, including former Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Aziz Dweik,  council member Nayef Rajoub and others. In sum, the prospect of a completely democratic election is questionable even if the elections go ahead as now seems likely, but relatively speaking they are expected to be as democratic as possible under the circumstances.

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