By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
Introduction: Prepared for Peaceful Alternation of Power
It does not seem that the Palestinian internal political landscape is prepared for the idea of the peaceful alternation of power, and accepting the results of elections no matter who the winner is; or for having fair conditions of transparency to conduct elections in a way that would reflect the true will of the Palestinians.
In August 2016, a Palestinian Authority (PA) official in Ramallah said Fatah would not contend in the elections if there were indications it would lose, adding: “We do not want to commit suicide!” In other words, if losing would be suicide, and Fatah would not participate if it cannot guarantee victory, then this means Fatah, which controls the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA intends to maintain its dominance on Palestinian leadership and decision-making indefinitely!!
While President ‘Abbas (and a number of Fatah leaders) are boasting of having consented to the legislative elections that led to a Hamas victory in 2006 and of having respected that result, there is something they are omitting: Fatah’s leadership did not expect a Hamas victory, as most polls and forecasts by the PA intelligence, Israeli intelligence, Arab intelligence, and US and international intelligence agencies were reassured Fatah would win.
As for the claim of respecting the elections, it does not suffice here to look only at agreeing to let Isma‘il Haniyyah form a government led by Hamas. We must also remember the measures and actions taken by Mahmud ‘Abbas himself to undermine the government, and the engineered lawlessness fueled by Fatah-aligned security forces that mutinied against the government. That is not to mention Abbas’s disruption of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) for the past nine years, preventing it from exercising its oversight functions for the sole reason that Hamas controls a majority of its seats. In addition, Palestinian governments all these past years were formed and they governed all without consulting the PLC, while ‘Abbas issued dozens of decrees and laws without seeking its approval or opinion.
The Palestinian reconciliation agreement signed in May 2011 was supposed to address the issue of rebuilding the Palestinian polity, following confidence-building measures leading to fair and free elections.. Yet five years were apparently not enough for those controlling the PA to do so. Now, a ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice, which may well be politicized, has suspended municipal elections, adding to the state of frustration in Palestine.
Municipal Elections: 2005 and 2012
The last municipal elections that saw the participation of Palestinian factions were held in 2005. Those elections saw traditional strong competition between Fatah and Hamas, and were held in four sages, involving 256 Palestinian cities and villages.
The results gave Fatah an advantage in small towns and villages and the total number of seats, while Hamas came ahead in larger towns and cities, and so had a bigger slice of the popular vote. Fatah won 1164 seats (due to the high number of small towns and villages) compared to 862 for Hamas. The total won by the two factions accounted for three-quarters of municipality seats. Fatah was surprised to see Hamas win by a landslide in Nablus (74%), the largest city in the West Bank (WB). For that reason, the Fatah-dominated PA decided not to hold municipal elections in the cities of Hebron and Gaza, where forecasts suggested a strong Hamas victory.
On 11/7/2012, the Fayyad government in Ramallah decided to hold municipal elections without consulting the Haniyyah government in Gaza Strip (GS), compelling Hamas to boycott those elections and not hold them in GS. The elections were held subsequently on 20/10/2012, involving 93 municipalities. In light of the boycott by resistance factions, there was sharp competition within Fatah leading to splinter Fatah candidates and lists contending against official Fatah candidates in a number of localities. This was most stark in Nablus, where a list by Ghassan al-Shak‘ah (resigned from Fatah) won against the official Fatah list headed by Amin Maqbul, secretary of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah. Another dismissed Fatah figure, Muhammad Dahlan, played an important role that impacted the results in a number of regions as well.
Municipal Elections: 2016 Disrupted
The decision by the Palestinian government on 21/6/2016 to hold municipal elections was a glimmer of hope that the stagnant reconciliation could be revived. The decision was welcomed by Hamas and other factions, which all decided to participate with the exception of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
As Hamas confirmed its participation, and the electoral map began to form amid aversion by leftist factions to ally with Fatah; and as competition and division began to emerge within Fatah with Dahlan entering the fray, voices began to emerge within Fatah’s leadership as well as from influential Arab capitals calling for the elections to be postponed. That was especially after Hamas has decided to participate widely in the WB by indirectly backing independent lists, meaning to preempt Israeli and PA crackdown, and thus having higher chances of win. Polls were putting Hamas-backed lists ahead in the major cities, confirming Hamas’s strong presence in the Palestinian political scene.
Pressures increased on ‘Abbas thus to postpone municipal elections beginning in August. Several members of the Fatah Central Committee openly requested it. Meanwhile, the Arab countries that had special links to the Palestinian affairs were not comfortable with holding the elections, and leaked reports suggested Jordan and Egypt were putting pressure towards cancelling or postponing the elections along with some Gulf countries. In their view, Fatah is too weak and fragmented for elections.
These regimes also fear a Hamas victory would breathe new life into the “Political Islam” movements, specifically the Muslim Brothers (MB) Movement, and boost Islamists in their own countries. The Arab countries, which are preoccupied with the post-‘Abbas phase especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, are making efforts to push Muhammad Dahlan to lead that phase, and thus believe a Hamas victory would complicate their plans.
For their part, the Israelis found themselves concerned with how to deal with the implications of a Hamas victory especially in the WB. Israeli estimates suggested Hamas would win in the main Palestinian cities, and were thus not comfortable with the elections. The Israelis intervened by arresting campaigners affiliated to Hamas, and attempting to force others to withdraw through various threats, as it did, for example, with candidates in Hamas supported list in al-Khalil (Hebron).
President ‘Abbas, who seemed adamant about holding elections, and worried at the same time from Arab intervention and the imposition of Dahlan on Fatah and the Palestinian leadership, felt he was still in control in August 2016. He thought he could decide at will to postpone or cancel elections if he sees Hamas’ odds increasing and a new setback for Fatah is looming. ‘Abbas did not want to anger the Arab countries that back the peace process and that are hostile to the “Political Islam” movements. He was seeking at the same time to deliver a message to these countries that Fatah’s decision is an internal issue, in particular concerning the issue of imposing his foes or competitors.
On the other hand, there were mutual accusations between GS and Ramallah of trying to influence elections using the security forces and judicial bodies.
The Ruling of the Supreme Court
There is near consensus in the Palestinian arena that the ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice on 8/9/2016, temporarily suspending the cabinet’s decision to hold municipal elections, was politicized, even if it had a legal justification. Indeed, there were increasing local and external pressures on ‘Abbas amid growing signs the Hamas-backed lists would achieve strong results, and amid continued divisions within Fatah as it was unable to form unified lists with leftist factions.
The proceedings relating to the case filed before the court show Fatah’s fingerprints. The three lists that filed the challenge are Fatah-affiliated, and thus would not have taken action without a green light from Fatah’s leadership, especially ‘Abbas. Furthermore, the logic used by the court was odd, invoking Jerusalem and its suburbs’ non-inclusion and questioning the judicial system in GS and its rulings.
Regardless of whether the electoral law gives any competence to the Supreme Court to consider electoral challenges (there is serious legal objections on the jurisdiction of this court on this matter), the court inserted itself in the main Palestinian political contradiction by stating that GS has no legal or judicial recognition. Meanwhile, the court itself is present in areas governed by a political leadership that has disrupted the work of the legislature, and where no government has obtained the confidence of the elected council. The court should have therefore based its rulings on basic accords in the reconciliation agreement in a direction that would help rebuild the Palestinian polity.
On the other hand, the invoking of Jerusalem’s non-inclusion as it is under occupation jurisdiction was odd, especially that it was done by Fatah-affiliated entities that had consented to its inclusion in the elections of 2005 and 2012. These entities know that using this argument means not holding elections at all, so long as the Israeli occupation prevents holding them in Jerusalem.
The third indicator came from the PA leadership itself, when it requested the prosecutor general representing it to ask the court to adjourn the case to 3/10/2016, while bearing in mind that the PA must have understood this to practically mean disrupting the elections.
Thus, all indicators have shown that ‘Abbas and Fatah’s leadership are no longer interested in holding municipal elections. This has caused a backlash from Hamas and other Palestinian factions.
No Big Loss
At any rate, there is no big loss here for Hamas and the Palestinian factions because of the postponement of the elections. The Israeli occupation in the WB, the killing, persecution, demolition, and heavy-handed interference in all facets of life, and the PA’s weakness and loss of direction, all make the prospect of successful municipal work extremely unlikely.
On the other hand, municipal elections do not give an accurate indication of the popularity of the Palestinian factions and their weight on the ground. Family, tribal, other cronyism-related calculations strongly influence the process, especially in the villages and the countryside, where 272 village councils out of 414 municipal councils are elected. Nevertheless, the Palestinian situation remains sensitive and attempts by various stakeholders to use the elections as a test of their popularity and of political orientations have given them a special flavor and unusual importance.
Finally, announcing then postponing the municipal elections shows just how much it is difficult to rebuild the Palestinian polity pursuant to the national reconciliation program, and highlights the influence of the Israeli occupation and the Arab and regional climate on Palestinian politics.