The Palestinian elections next month will be the first since political violence in the 2006 election. It was that violence between the mainstream Fatah faction and the Islamist militant group Hamas – the two forces that have dominated Palestinian politics for decades – that triggered a separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Preparations are underway for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, set for 22 May, now that the period set for candidate registration ended on 31 March. The final lists are expected to appear on 30 April, when official campaigning can start.
Uncertainty and fear of political turmoil, however, prevail less than a month for the planned contest amid confusion whether the long-awaited election will be held and if it will lead to meaningful change in the Palestinian dysfunctional political system.
The Palestinian Central Election Commission (CEC) has announced that 36 lists with a total of 1389 candidates registered for the poll. That is triple the number of candidates in the last election, which led to Hamas’s shock win over Fatah.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has held presidential and legislative elections twice since the historic 1993 peace agreement that allowed the PLO and other Palestinian factions to return to the West Bank and Gaza. The first presidential vote took place in 1996, when Yasser Arafat won the presidency and his party, Fatah, came to dominate the PLC.
A presidential election was held once again in 2005 following Arafat’s death, which Mahamoud Abbas won. In 2006 Hamas won by a landslide, securing 76 seats in the 132-member parliament while Fatah garnered only 43 seats.
That surprise defeat dramatically shifted the Palestinian political landscape leading to a bitter power struggle culminating in a civil war that divided the occupied Palestinian territories, leaving Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah with its power base in the West Bank.
Now Palestinian elections are back in the limelight with political analysts at odds over the wisdom of holding them in the first place. Such a move, some think, will simply create more friction and clashes in a sharply divided society.
Shortly before the deadline for vote registration ended, Hamas unveiled its list of candidates, ending speculation over a joint list between the Islamist movement and Fatah which raised hope that the process might foster unity and restore international confidence in the Palestinian political system.
Fatah announced who its own candidates would be, with two of its prominent West Bank leaders, Mahmoud Al-Aloul and Jibril Al-Rajoub, topping a list that includes 132 candidates contesting all the seats in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
But among the other lists approved for the race are two alternative representatives of Fatah: the Freedom list, led by a nephew of Arafat’s, Nasser Al-Kidwa, and the Future list of former Gaza security chief, Mohamed Dahlan, Abbas’s arch-rival who is currently in exile in Abu Dhabi.
Freedom has been endorsed by Marwan Barghouthi, a popular leader among many Palestinians who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for resisting Israeli occupation, while the Future is widely seen as backed by the United Arab Emirates and probably other Arab governments too.
The two breakaway groups, however, are seen by many Palestinians as a major challenge to Abbas and the Fatah leadership whose worst nightmare is their possible alliance with Hamas to form a post-election administration.
While electoral prospects remain unclear, pre-balloting polls vary on the possible results of the May elections, making the true picture more nuanced than early broad assessments suggest.
Neither Abbas’s Fatah nor Hamas can achieve a parliamentary majority if elections are held in May, which would force them to partner with each other or with smaller parties to form a government.
Abbas, 85, who has ruled by decree for 16 years, also called for new presidential elections on 31 July in response to the claim that he lacks democratic legitimacy.
In fact he is expected to face a tough challenge by contenders both from within Fatah and from Hamas. One key possiblity for the July presidential election is Barghouthi who was given a lead in recent polls.
Still, whether or not the vote takes place remains a matter of speculation. In addition to the intra-Palestinian rift and disagreements within Fatah, the other main sticking point for holding elections is Israel which has vehemently refused to allow balloting in east Jerusalem where some 372,000 Palestinians reside.
Jerusalem has been a major focus in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it the 1967 Middle East war and claims sovereignty over the entire city. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and most of the world considers it occupied territory.
However, as uncertainty rises, questions also mount regarding the validity of the election and whether it is politically sound to hold elections that will further expose the Palestinian political system and deepen the divide within Palestinian society.
In theory, for the fragile Palestinian political system a fair election is thought to be important to establish legitimacy after 16 years of direct rule without elected representatives or accountability.
According to this perspective, holding a democratic election could shore up efforts to push for effective political institutions and maintain both political order and rule of law.
There have been news reports that many global parties, such as United Nations and the European Union as well as the United States, have been urging Abbas to hold elections in order to “renew the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority.”
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland said elections could pave way to Palestinian unity and advance peace with Israel.
Some Arab governments also hope new elections might finally lead to reconciliation to try to heal long-standing internal divisions and probably also to resume the stalled peace talks with Israel.
Proponents have also argued that a successful election would help to moderate Hamas as an ideologically militant force and constitutes the beginning of a change in its attitude to the peace process.
On the other hand, the prospect of elections in a divided Palestinian society has raised fear among observers of renewed conflicts rather than hope in resolving or managing old ones.
Among the perils explored by analysts is that elections could deepen a major power struggle within Abbas’ Fatah and precipitate the breakup of the group, which for the longest time has served as the backbone of the Palestinian national movement.
Hamas becoming more moderate as a result of being included in the Palestinian political system through elections is a far-fetched idea, too, especially if the movement wins by a landslide.
Empowering Hamas in the West Bank could in fact further radicalise the movement, resulting in international isolation of the Palestinian Authority and stricter Israeli restrictions in the West Bank – even a blockade similar to that imposed on Gaza.
One of the worst-case scenarios for the post-election era in the Palestinian territories is that the Palestinian Authority might be heading towards a serious deadlock and a repeat of 2006.
For all these reasons, two questions remain: does the election really matters for the Palestinians who are suffering from tougher Israeli occupation and deepening societal and political division? Does it really provide an opportunity to engage in overhauling a flawed political system?
In its 2020 report on global political rights and liberties, the US-based Freedom House noted that the West Bank is “under Israeli military occupation” which entails “restrictions on political and civil liberties.”
While Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza also fall under the authoritarian rule of the PA and Hamas and the two groups’ power struggle, a truthful answer to the two aforementioned questions lies in the dichotomy of occupation and democracy.
Unless you end one, you cannot build the other.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly