Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will be heading to the polls for the first time since 2006 to elect a new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) on 22 May.
As the deadline for registering electoral lists approaches on 31 March, the voters are feeling the excitement and uncertainty of how and if the polls will reflect changes in the Occupied Territories.
Palestinian presidential elections scheduled later on 31 July have also cast their shadow, with signs that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who holds the reins of both the executive and legislative branches of government, could be unseated should Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian leader serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, contest the elections.
Elections for the Palestinian National Council, the supreme legislative body of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) that represents Palestinians inside the Occupied Territories and in the Diaspora, are scheduled for 31 August.
The series of elections are like stones cast into the still waters of the Occupied Territories’ longstanding deadlock, and they could radically change the political landscape.
“These are very important elections,” Mustafa Al-Barghouti, the political leader who heads the independent Palestinian National Initiative Party (PNI), said. Al-Barghouti and his party have been busy preparing for the legislative elections and finalising their list.
“These are the first elections to be held in the Occupied Territories for 15 years, which is why the Palestinian people are thirsty for the democratic process as evidenced by the unprecedentedly high voter-registration rate that has exceeded 90 per cent,” Al-Barghouti told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from Ramallah.
Al-Barghouti co-founded the PNI in 2002 with other prominent Palestinian figures including leading literary critic and advocate for Palestinian independence Edward Said and Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the political leader who headed the Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid Conference as an alternative to the PLO and Islamist groups such as Hamas.
Al-Barghouti, a left-leaning physician turned politician, contested the 2005 Palestinian presidential elections and lost to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He was elected a member of the Legislative Council in 2006.
The high percentage of registered voters in the upcoming elections is “very significant,” he said, given that 40 per cent of the voters are young people who have never voted before in their lives.
“We need, and people are yearning for change. There is real frustration at the existing one-man rule, the absence of legislative and judicial authorities, and the executive authority’s complete control of all powers,” he added. “There is no way to change that except by elections.”
The 2006 PLC elections saw a win for the Islamic resistance group Hamas, but was rejected by Abbas and his Fatah faction, as well as Israel, the United States, and the international community, and led to an internal power struggle between the two factions and Hamas’s eventual seizing of Gaza in 2007.
The PLC has been suspended ever since as a result, leaving president Abbas to rule by decree.
For Al-Barghouti, the upcoming elections offer an opportunity to address the inter-Palestinian division since 2007 in the light of prospects that a national unity government could be formed.
The Palestinian factions have been in reconciliation talks for years. In recent months they agreed to codes of ethics and agreements hosted by Cairo to proceed with new elections without repeating the 2007 scenario. Hamas, for example, has pledged not to field a candidate in the July presidential elections.
With so much talk now taking place about Palestinian unity and reconciliation, some are sceptical about how this will materialise on the ground and with the Israeli occupation controlling Palestinian life.
“It is realistic,” said Al-Barghouti. “How else can you change a bad political system? There are two options: violence or peaceful means, and since violence is out of the question, the non-violent means leave us with the only option of elections.”
There is no denial of the Israeli occupation, but while the PA is under the control of the occupation, the PLC (in its current form) is not part of the Oslo Agreement, the 1993 Palestinian-Israeli framework set up in an attempt to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The agreement led to the creation of the PA as an interim five-year form of Palestinian self-government. During that time, the contentious issue of a two-state solution in historic Palestine was supposed to be resolved through negotiations, though these never happened.
According to Al-Barghouti, one of the powerful tools in the hands of the PLC is the fact that it has the power to cancel the practically defunct Oslo Agreement. Members of the PLC will automatically become members of the PLO’s influential National Palestinian Council. It is important to understand, he said, that the 132-seat PLC is also a deviation from Oslo, which envisioned an Israeli-controlled 24-member Palestinian legislative body.
One of the significant outcomes of the forthcoming Palestinian elections could be the formation of a national-unity government that would include Hamas and thus be a major turning point in Palestinian politics.
But there are obstacles, Al-Barghouti cautions. Israel does not want the Palestinians to hold elections, and it wants to prevent them from happening.
“If the vote is cancelled, Israel will be able to continue saying it’s a democracy – the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ – while the Palestinians will have none. This is a lie, of course, because a system cannot be democratic if it thrives on apartheid and racism. It will be a democracy for some, but not for all the people.”
On the other hand, he added, Israel also wants to perpetuate Palestinian divisions, with Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank. “The elections offer prospects for unity and a unified PLC, while the divisions keep us weak and help the Israeli narrative that they don’t have a partner to negotiate with that represents all Palestinians,” he said.
Abbas’s sudden call for elections two months ago was perceived as a nod to US-European pressure on the PA. “Not true,” said Al-Barghouti. “The elections are a source of worry.”
“The decision to hold elections is in response to mounting popular pressure and fears of implosion due to the worsening economic and political situation,” he explained. On the other hand, the Palestinian regime needs to “renew its legitimacy” as some elements within it are hopeful that new negotiations will begin under the new Biden administration in the US.
“Without reasserting their legitimacy, they believe their position in any future talks will be weak,” Al-Barghouti said.
For Al-Barghouti, the biggest challenge facing the elections will be whether they will be a means for change or whether by reinstating the status quo of what is frankly authoritarian rule they will sustain inter-Palestinian divisions.
“We want these elections to be the means to change the nature of Palestinian governance first, and second to end the divisions,” he said.
While the PLC elections offer a window for such change, it is the presidential elections that could usher in a new era. PA President Abbas is 85 years old, and after 16 years in power he has no plans to step down. However, if the independent polls are any indication, he will be easily defeated by Marwan Barghouti, 61, by far the most popular politician in Palestine today, should he break ranks with the Fatah movement and contest the elections.
Barghouti, a political prisoner associated with the first and second Intifadas and epic mass hunger strikes in Israeli prisons, has been leading the polls against Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniya.
He succumbed to pressure from the Fatah movement in 2005 and agreed to withdraw his candidacy in the earlier elections. But his associates say he has now turned down Fatah’s offer to lead their election list for the PLC that includes electing him as Palestinian parliamentary speaker and launching an ambitious international campaign for his release from prison.
However, Barghouti has not issued a statement on that proposal, his rejection of it, or a decision to run in the July presidential elections. His wife, Fadwa Barghouti, did not respond to the Weekly’s request for comment on the issue.
“The situation is very sensitive, and I do not wish to speak about it,” she said.
According to Mustafa Al-Barghouti, a distant cousin, Marwan Barghouti is legally qualified to run in the elections, just as other Palestinian prisoners have successfully contested legislative elections in the past while in Israeli jails.
“This would be very important. Marwan is a resistance leader, and he has every right to be a candidate,” he said.
But until Marwan Barghouti makes a public decision, other Palestinian figures eyeing the PA chairmanship will have to wait. “It’s still too early,” said Mustafa Al-Barghouti, who did not rule out the possibility of running himself.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly