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Palestine's municipal elections will have serious ramifications

The municipal elections are due to take place on 8 October and this week saw Hamas launch its election campaign with a series of videos wherein ordinary people say 'Thank you' to the movement

Benjamin Netanyahu's recent claim that he cares more about Palestinians than their own leadership is patently ridiculous. The sheer volume of ways in which the current Israeli prime minister's "care" for the Palestinians has been demonstrated as actually being quite the opposite could fill the pages of many books; indeed, the published record is voluminous. Netanyahu's statement was inspired by the results of an Israeli Security Forces-led investigation into alleged corruption among NGO employees in Gaza; both World Vision and the United Nations – the NGOs affected – are conducting their own investigations.

However, Netanyahu's hyperbole notwithstanding, this should be an opportunity to examine the relationship between Palestinian leaders and the people they govern. The forthcoming municipal elections are the first opportunity since 2012 for ordinary people to exercise their democratic right across both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and should be a reasonable indicator of how this relationship is performing; the poll will be a test of the Palestinian Authority's popularity. There has been no opportunity for Palestinians to participate in a general legislative election since Hamas's surprise victory in 2006, and no election for president since the year before (despite the fact that Mahmoud Abbas's term in office expired in 2010).

The contenders

The municipal elections are due to take place on 8 October and this week saw Hamas launch its election campaign with a series of videos wherein ordinary people say "Thank you" to the movement. This marks the first time in 10 years that the Islamist movement has chosen to participate in such elections, even though it won on the previous occasion, when the result was basically overturned by an international boycott and there was a violent schism with its main opponents, Fatah.

The secular Fatah dominates the PA infrastructure and has been associated with both the "peace process" with Israel and widespread corruption accompanied by increasing authoritarianism in the still-occupied West Bank; the faction is going through some tumultuous times. In particular, there is widespread dissatisfaction with President Abbas – who is also the leader of Fatah – as well as some apparent support for Mohammad Dahlan, the former leader of Fatah in Gaza and a man who has powerful friends in the Gulf and Cairo.

Palestine's various leftist parties are also participating in the October election and, importantly, for the first time they will run on a united ticket in the hope of breaking the dominance of Fatah and Hamas. However, both Islamic Jihad – an organisation that has always rejected the democratic process – and Hizb ut-Tahrir have ruled themselves out.

Polling

There is a wide array of polling organisations operating in Palestine yet their impact on the political process is limited. While most produce regular reports based on generally comprehensible methodology, there is a widespread lack of belief in and/or support for the work that they do. There may, however, still be lessons to learn from their findings.

According to the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey, for example, "There is a limited decline in support for Hamas and its presidential candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, despite continued demand for Abbas' resignation from two thirds of the public."

While there is no data from the pollsters that deals specifically with the forthcoming municipal elections, the popularity of the various political factions is recorded. They find that 65 per cent of Palestinians polled want President Abbas to resign, with just 31 per cent wanting him to stay in office. Further, if direct presidential elections were held between Abbas and Haniyeh, Abbas would lose by 5 per cent (43 per cent to 48 per cent).

Yet, according to the poll, "If parliamentary elections took place today, Fatah would get 34 per cent of the vote, Hamas 31 per cent, and all other electoral lists combined 9 per cent; 26 per cent [of voters] say they have not decided yet."

Thus, these results suggest that there is considerable dissatisfaction directed at Abbas personally, which makes him less popular than Fatah more broadly.

This trend is made clearer when we examine polling results over time. As the following graph shows, the percentage of the Palestinian population who are satisfied with the performance of Abbas has declined relatively steadily over the past three years. Indeed, his favourability reached a low of 33.7 per cent in the most recent survey.

Gaza vs West Bank

It is important to note that Abbas's decline in popularity is actually primarily the product of changing opinions in the West Bank, the part of the occupied Palestinian territories where he exercises most control (as opposed to the Gaza Strip, which is under Hamas rule).

As the following graph shows, while Abbas's popularity in the Gaza Strip has been generally lower than in the West Bank, the Gaza numbers have been relatively consistent over three years. However, it is public opinion in the West Bank that has changed.

Moreover, as the latest polling shows, if legislative elections were to be held then although it is likely that Fatah would do a little better than Hamas, this is probably the result of broader factors such as "declining Palestinian-Israeli confrontations and the focus on international diplomacy" which has favoured Fatah, as well as pessimism about the state of Egyptian-Hamas relations. Importantly however, polling analysis states that: "Abbas, Fatah and the PA remain highly vulnerable as two thirds demand Abbas resignation, Fatah has not gained any additional support during the last three months, and a majority of Palestinians believes that the PA has become a burden on the Palestinian people."

The political landscape

Given the fact that the election campaign is just beginning and that there are innumerable as yet unforeseeable factors that could have an impact on the outcome (let's not forget that Hamas's 2006 victory in the legislative elections was a complete surprise, even to them) it is too early to draw firm conclusions about what is likely to happen.

However, these elections are a big deal. They will be the first time that all of Palestine's main political factions will face off in a democratic election in 10 years and, importantly, they are likely to offer some insights into the nature of the Palestinian political landscape at a time when a change in leadership at the top of the PA, is looking ever more likely.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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