Palestinian elections fail to provide political answers

16 May 2017

AMMAN: Long before Palestinian parliamentary elections, Palestinian radio and TV, and regular public opinion polls, elections any elections had a political meaning.

Elections for student councils, charitable organizations, sports clubs or trade unions had political significance.

Municipal elections for sure had a political message. Before the Oslo Accords, Palestinians proudly showed their loyalty and support to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by electing names that were clearly identified with one or more of the PLO factions.

But nowadays, alas, elections have a little political value the way it used to.

Palestine’s leading university held student council elections on May 10, but the results did not seem to matter very much to anyone.

At Birzeit University, which was the stepping stone into political life for imprisoned leading legislator Marwan Barghouti (now leading Palestinians on a hunger strike in Israeli prisons), students close to Hamas received the highest number of votes 3,778, while students supporting Fatah got 3,340 and those loyal to Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) garnered 619 votes.

The two leftists organizations, the Democratic Front and the People’s Party, only managed 50 and 40 votes respectively.

In the presence of legal political parties, many would argue that student council elections are no longer a barometer of public support.

The same can be said about local council elections, held in the West Bank, only, on May 14.

Hamas officially boycotted these elections and so did the Popular Front, so most of the slates were either tribal lists or competing Fatah groups.

According to the Palestinian Independent Elections Commission, 420,682 Palestinians voted out of 787,386 registered voters in 2017 53.4 percent, similar to that of 2012.

The May 14 elections were scheduled for Oct. 8, last year, but were postponed by the Palestinian High Court when the Hamas-appointed courts in Gaza invalidated a number of lists that belonged to the competing Fatah movement.

After much deliberation, the court decided that elections would first be held in the West Bank on May 14.

Palestinian government and political officials, as well as the head of the elections commission, called on Hamas to allow the people of Gaza to participate in follow-up municipal elections in Gaza.

Wafa Adel Rahman, a Gazan living in Ramallah, was so upset about the elections not taking place in Gaza that she decided not to vote in her current place of residence, Ramallah.

Abdel Rahman, who runs the non-governmental organization (NGO) Falastinat, a media organization that supports the equitable discourse of youth and women, told Arab News that she decided not to participate in the current elections, because she did not feel it was necessary or urgent.

“At a time when we have not reached a political consensus and the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza have meant that Gaza has been removed from the occasion, plus the prisoners’ strike, I have decided personally not to participate.”

The sentiment is similar in the West Bank’s business capital Nablus.

Kaid Miari, who runs the Shahed think tank, told Arab News that the city witnessed the lowest voting percentage because of a lackluster election campaign and the prisoner strike.

“A coalition list was made up of a mix of pro-Fatah and pro-Hamas figures, and this left very little competition in the elections. Furthermore, the call by the prisoners’ support committee for a postponement of the elections also caused many to stay away.”

Anees Sweidan, an official in the PLO’s Ramallah office, told Arab News that many families of prisoners who are on hunger strike heeded the call to boycott the elections.

“Many stayed away for that reason; a small percentage, 2 percent, actually cast votes with the words hunger strike written on them.”

In some of the other major cities, it seems that the elections were not held on a political basis.

Fatah versus Fatah lists were featured in Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem.

In many villages, elections did not take place because there was consensus on the candidates, so there was no reason to hold elections. In addition, Gaza elections were not held in East Jerusalem either.

Palestinian officials have not been able to carry out any election procedure in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed shortly after the 1967 occupation.

Hazem H. Kawasmi, head of operations in the Municipal Development and Lending Fund in the West Bank, told Arab News that the Palestinian government did not try very hard to have East Jerusalemites participate in these elections.

“We all know that the Palestinian leadership has many cards it could use to force Israel to allow the 330,000 residents of East Jerusalem to participate in the elections,” said Kawasmi.

According to him, the Palestinian government can use the threat of going to the International Court of Justice and to UN agencies if Israel prevents Palestinians in East Jerusalem from participating.

While student councils and municipal elections cannot be used anymore as political barometers of political tendencies in Palestine, they are still seen as important features in the continuity and sustainability of daily life, irrespective of political progress or lack thereof.

For the Palestinian president, holding local elections, whether at universities or for municipal councils, is proof of the democratic nature of the Palestinian leadership, in contrast with the undemocratic tendencies of the Hamas movement in Gaza, which has not allowed any sort of elections.

What most Palestinians want, of course, is the renewal of parliamentary and presidential elections.

The last time President Mahmoud Abbas was elected was in 2005, and the last time Palestinians participated in legislative elections (in which East Jerusalemites and Gazans participated ) was in 2006.

Since then, these important general elections have not taken place and in the meantime different groups came to be in charge of the West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas, who won the presidential election, and his government are in firm control of the West Bank, while in Gaza, Hamas, whose followers won the parliamentary elections in 2006, refuse to recognize Abbas’ authority and created a renegade regime.

All attempts at reconciliation and agreements signed between Fatah and Hamas include the need to hold new elections as the best way to resolve differences.

Neither the student council elections at Birzeit University, in which Hamas sympathizers received the highest votes, nor the municipal elections in the West bank, in which pro-Fatah names won in most locations, will do much to break the larger logjam.

Until general elections take place in all of the occupied territories, including Gaza and East Jerusalem, with all political groups participating, the fractured nature of Palestinian politics will continue.

© Arab News 2017

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