Cautious Steps towards Democracy: The Upcoming Palestinian Local Elections

Palestine Muni Elections
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation

The electoral ballot boxes for the upcoming Palestinian local elections are being prepared in the West Bank following the electoral campaigning that began in November. Under growing authoritarian rule and continuous oppressive incidents, public expectations for a concrete change remain shallow. Still, and despite the shrinking support for the Palestinian Authority, many Palestinians hope that local elections could be a first step for the renewal of democratic processes.

On November 27th, electoral campaigning registration for the first phase of the local elections started in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA) Council of Ministers approved in September the holding of the local council elections in two phases in the municipalities and village councils of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinian election commission stated that there are 2.54 million Palestinians eligible to cast ballot in the local elections that are held in two stages on Dec. 11th and March 26th, 2022 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian Election Commission started at the beginning of October registering candidates for the first stage of Palestinian Local Elections, scheduled on Dec 11th, 2021 in the West Bank which includes 376, mostly rural, local authorities and village councils. The second phase is scheduled to take place on March 26th, 2022 and will include the remaining 66 entities that are all the bigger Palestinian municipalities. Some analysts claim the sequencing of the elections in two phases to be an attempt to being able to cancel or postpone elections in the more important municipalities of phase two in case of very disappointing results for the Fatah-ruled PA in phase one.

However, Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist organization that rules the Palestinian enclave of Gaza since 2007, announced on September 22nd boycotting these elections and preventing the inclusion of Gaza which it controls in it. The Islamic movement set the condition of only participating in case “a general election is also called for”, stating that Abbas’s delay of the general elections is a “Breach of National Consensus”. Hamas’s move comes as a trial to pick up public anger against the PA for cancelling in April the previously scheduled legislative and Presidential elections of 2021.

 Islamic Hamas and Secular Fatah, the two dominant Palestinian factions and political rivals have not competed in the ballot box for more than a decade. However, in the absence of elections, the claim by either movement to command a stronger following among Palestinians remains impossible to substantiate. The West Bank and the Gaza strip consist of 461 municipalities (391 in the West Bank, 25 in Gaza) ranging from major cities to small villages. Hamas boycotted the last municipal elections of 2012 and prevented them from being held in Gaza, by claiming that they were a “unilateral step and undermining reconciliation”.

Since the victory of Hamas at the 2006 elections for the second Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), followed by the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, the PA had repeatedly cancelled and delayed general elections. Since 2007, power structures in Gaza and the West-Bank have remained unchanged with growing dissatisfaction of the marginalized public. The local elections, as a result, are seen as an entryway for laying the ground to hold National Council, Legislative Council and Presidential Elections. 

According to conventional wisdom, Hamas’s demand to conduct general elections may stem from the movement’s confidence that it will do well and gain control, given the weakness, unpopularity and organizational chaos of its Fatah rivals. What is clear, though, is that Hamas is trying to position itself for a win-win situation. If, and in case general elections take place, and their date draws closer, Hamas would feel confident it will do well, and can proceed and claim victory. On the other hand, in case one of the upcoming local election phases is cancelled by the PA, Hamas would blame Fatah for supressing the implementation of democratic processes.

As a matter of fact, several major developments took place prior to the first stage of the local elections that decreased the popularity and public support of President Abbas, the PA and its ruling Fatah party. Firstly, the postponement of the Parliamentary elections that were planned for May 2021,  and secondly , the confrontations in Jerusalem during Ramadan of 2021 over access to Al Aqsa mosque and the threat of deportation of Sheikh Jarrah residents that lead to the clashes between Hamas and Israel following these tensions in Jerusalem.

The postponement of Parliamentary elections decreased public support of Abbas

Since the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on April 30th officially postponed the scheduled vote for the legislative elections, citing the Israeli authorities refusal to allow elections in East Jerusalem, his support has been fading among the Palestinian public.  

Many believe this calling off by Abbas was because of the divisions in Fatah’s faction, his fear of losing power and his unpopularity in the polls. According to polls, competing Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would have been able to win over Abbas despite sitting for nearly two decades in an Israeli prison. Continuing arrests of dissidents by the PA after the postponement of the elections planned for May 2020 have spread fear in Palestinian society. The drop in support for Abbas was sharpened also after the wave of protests against the PA in the West Bank sparked by Banat’s case. The political activist Nizar Banat, a well-known critic of corruption within the PA, and its increasingly authoritarian leadership and policies, became a symbol of this trend, as in June, Banat was beaten during his arrest by PA security forces and died in custody. Since then, the PA and its ruling Fatah-party have only slowly regained support.  

According to a Palestinian public opinion poll of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in October, the current recovery raises the expectation for Fatah to being able to win the first phase of the local elections, but not yet in the second. The same poll by the PCPSR, reveals that with over three quarters of the Palestinian population demanding his resignation, the level of dissatisfaction with the performance of president Abbas are very high. However, about 71% of Palestinians in the West Bank believe that people in their area cannot criticize the Fatah controlled PA without fear, and in comparison, In Gaza Strip, 62% say people in their area cannot criticize Hamas’s authority without fear. The poll also shows that Fatah enjoys more support than Hamas and third parties, constituting 41% support rate to Fatah and to 27% to Hamas in those areas in the West Bank where the first phase of the local elections.

Political parties participate in municipal elections, but they typically run on traditional leadership or service-oriented rather than ideological platforms. Issues raised in general elections such as commitment to past agreements with Israel usually do not come up in municipal elections. However, the participation of Hamas in general elections, as a major political party that solemnly denies politically and ideologically the legitimacy of the 1993 Oslo accords, which is the international framework that created the PA. This raises policy challenges for Israel and for the international community, in a scenario in which Hamas wins and takes control of the PA.

From another perspective, Tribalism has dominated the local council electoral system over the years, diminishing the role of youth and women in local councils. The upcoming municipal elections may also be imperfect in gauging the political power of the competing parties, given the dominance of tribes, large families and clans in the villages and towns where the first phase will be conducted. Tribal-based villages are central in determining the local elections outcome and most families in these areas “by coincidence” are Fatah supporters generation by generation. In addition, the high local practical basis of these elections makes them less suited for assessing the popularity of political platforms. That is, such elections could shed light on the parties’ organizational cohesion and skills as well as their credibility among the voters.

To date, all attempts toward national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas have failed, despite an abundance of formal reconciliation agreements. The two sides have shown almost no political will to reconcile, and have instead spent much energy blaming each other. Feeling mutually threatened, the factions have worked consistently to prevent each other from gaining any foothold in areas they control. As a premise, without a political solution to the deeper issues underlying the division in Palestinian politics, as well as to those creating general paralysis in the Palestinian polity, the first phase of the planned municipal vote might stabilize Fatah and the PA in the West Bank. Nonetheless, it could already in its second phase create a scenario that further widens divisions and deepens the overall political crisis. At the end of the day, hope remains that these elections might lead again to democratic processes renewal under a just and democratic Palestinian Authority regardless of the shrinking support.