Friday’s Fact: Little Public Interest in Local Elections as Fatah Runs Largely Uncontested

Tomorrow will see the Occupied Palestinian Territory’s (OPT) first local elections since 2012. While the votes have not yet been cast, we are unlikely to witness any surprise outcome in tomorrow’s elections. Unlike last October, when the local elections were supposed to have been held, there is little public interest this time round. Yet with a number of popular factions not participating and the elections excluding Gaza, this comes as no surprise to most observers.The noticeable lack of public interest likely owes much to the fact that less than half of the local councils are actually being contested. The Central Elections Commission (CEC) recently announced that elections will only be held in 145 out of a total of 391 localities. Electoral lists in 181 localities have already won by acclamation, as only one list was submitted to the CEC. Critical voices claim that this is due to the influence of powerful families and clientelistic structures, while others argue that it is a positive result born out of a deliberative process within the respective communities. Another 65 localities will hold no elections at all, due to incomplete lists.

In comparison, hopes were high last October as Palestinians prepared for the first Palestinian elections to be held in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections. The dominant Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, as well as the other smaller parties, were all competing against one another for the first time in over ten years. After the initial excitement, Palestinians had to sit quietly in frustration as the elections were suspended due to a controversial Supreme Court decision regarding the exclusion of Jerusalem from the electoral process. Furthermore, a Gaza court disqualified five Fatah-backed electoral lists. Accused of partisanship, both courts were widely criticised in the Palestinian public. Yet for some reason, the exclusion of Jerusalem suburbs on the Israeli-side of the Separation Wall this time round does not seem to be a problem.

Those who hoped that the parties would be able to create conditions favourable for elections across the OPT in 2017 were quickly disappointed. Soon after the Palestinian Authority’s announcement of new date for local elections earlier this year, Hamas decided “not to run for the elections because of the issuance of a number of presidential decisions without reaching a consensus from all national partners”. Other influential factions, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), also announced they would boycott of the elections, leaving Fatah to run almost uncontested. It should be noted that a number of individuals affiliated to Hamas are standing for election on joint lists, even if they are in some cases listed officially as ‘independents’.

Indeed, let down again, the Palestinian public has instead turned its attention elsewhere. On the one side, the hunger-strike of Palestinian prisoners together with public acts of solidarity have garnered much international attention. Some family members of the hunger strikers have also questioned the timing of the elections and have been offended by the party atmosphere of some of the election campaigns. On the other hand, Hamas has decided to focus on its own political campaign, recently announcing not only a new political leadership, but a new policy document which could turn Hamas into a more attractive partner for the international community.

The result is a Palestinian public that remains without proper representation and has by and large forsaken its hopes for a competitive electoral process in the near future. In the end, critics argue, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has simply tried to present himself as the true democrat committed to elections. Yet Hamas and others also knows that the local elections will have only a limited political impact on the ground. They are waiting for the real thing: legislative or Presidential elections.

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Picture: A poster from the Palestinian Central Elections Commission explaining how to vote at the upcoming local elections. Credit: Palestinian Central Elections Commission