Campaigning has barely started but the planned Palestinian local elections are already turning into a farce. Intimidation, physical attacks and the detention of candidates in municipalities across the West Bank have given rise to questions about the real purpose of the exercise. One view gaining currency is that they are intended to prepare the way for parliamentary and presidential elections in the occupied territories.
Events on the ground show that both the ruling Fatah movement and the Israeli establishment are fearful of the possible results of any and all elections. If anything was learnt from other experiences it is that opinion polls can be misleading. No matter how much they may indicate a party’s popularity, nothing is guaranteed until the final votes are counted.
More frightening for Fatah, there is also the grim reminder of recent student elections in the West Bank, which resulted in dramatic victories for Hamas. In April, the Islamists won 25 of the 51 seats in Bir Zeit University elections where about 75 per cent of the students voted.
It is true that university polls represent only a section of society and as such cannot be regarded as an accurate reflection of public opinion. They can, nevertheless, point to societal trends.
In order to avoid a humiliating defeat like that suffered at Bir Zeit – or even in the 2006 parliamentary elections – Fatah, with Israel’s assistance, is now lashing out at opposition candidates, especially those connected to Hamas. Notable examples of intimidation include a recorded threat against Abdullah Yasin in Tulkarm; calls from Palestinian Authority (PA) intelligence agents to an independent candidate, Khalid Abu Al Baha, who was forced to withdraw; and threats to Rashad Sawan and Muhammad Ali Sawan from Immatain village in the Qalqilya Governorate. In the town of Anabta, the candidate for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was also threatened and forced to withdraw from a joint list alongside Hamas.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this unfolding electoral farce are the threats meted out to scores of candidates who are supposed to be associated with Fatah, among them Yahya Shawer and Judy Abu Sinineh in Hebron. Their only transgression, as it were, is that they decided to campaign on other than the official Fatah list.
One only needs to scratch the surface, therefore, to find the answers to this scandalous train of events, which are being passed off as free elections. At first glance it may seem that this is a straight fight between Hamas and Fatah, but it isn’t. Muhammad Dahlan, the disgraced former Fatah operative, still has support within the movement, although its senior officials, especially those close to Mahmoud Abbas, would have us believe that he is yesterday’s man. This is certainly not the case.
For a start, it is believed widely that his security and intelligence background has seen Dahlan emerge as the favoured candidate of Egypt and Israel (and, by extension, the West) to succeed Mahmoud Abbas. In recent days, Jordan has thrown its weight behind an Egyptian initiative to reconcile Dahlan and Abbas, his former boss.
While the ultimate objective is to install the mercurial Dahlan as head of Fatah, the PLO and the PA, his regional backers, Israel included, are fully aware that this coronation must be seen as legitimate and credible, however outlandish it may actually be. Hence, the farce of local elections that are expected to clear the way for even more absurd parliamentary and presidential elections.
If there is one certainty about the Palestinian electorate it is its unpredictability. No one knows how voters will react to this travesty. It is precisely for this reason that the Israeli occupation authorities have stepped up their witch-hunt against journalists in the West Bank.
Since the beginning of this year, Israel has closed six media organisations in the occupied territories, all on the pretext of “incitement”, confirming thereby the impossibility of having a free press and real democracy under military occupation. The latest victim is Al-Sanabel radio station, which broadcasts from Dura village in Hebron.
All told, time has evidently run out for Abbas. He has, it seems, very little choice on the issue of reconciliation, let alone about who will succeed him. After more than a decade at the helm of Fatah, the PLO and the PA he still has no deputy or identifiable successor. In this regard, though, he is by means unique; such a state of affairs is part of the official Arab pathology. Regional autocrats rule as if their time will never come to an end. Indeed, like the medieval kings of Europe they rule as if it is their “divine right”.
They are mistaken to do so; everything comes to an end, even Israel’s illegal military occupation. Not even farcical Palestinian elections, municipal or otherwise, will delay this eventuality. They will be far from free and fair and should be cancelled.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.