In a worn-out Palestinian political and institutional environment, and in the absence of reference points and institutions governing national action, as well as there being no guarantees of freedom and integrity while the political programmes and priorities are in conflict, holding elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) is a recipe for failure. It would be a recycling of the Palestinian national project crisis.
Elections are a mechanism based on a set of systems, rules, foundations, controls and safeguards that should ensure the reasonable achievement of objectives. However, if elections are used merely to break the stalemate, escape from reality or for the benefit of one party's agenda, they will only generate further frustration.
Where the problems lie
The Palestinian umbrella body, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is very weak and isolated. It has failed to include key components and sections of the Palestinian people, and renew its legislative and executive institutions. In the process, it has been dominated by a single Palestinian faction for more than half a century.
Furthermore, the Palestinians contend with two opposing political programmes: one supports the moribund peace process and is backed by the legitimacy of the President, his agreements with the Israeli occupation and official Arab and international support. The other is based on a broad popular resistance programme and the legitimacy of the PLC elected in 2006. This means that the Palestinian Authority areas in the occupied West Bank are controlled by those supporting the "peace process" and Fatah, while the Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas and pro-resistance movements.
Israel is also an active player in the political, economic and security environment of the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Israelis can make any government fail and arrest its ministers. It can disrupt Palestinian elections, thwart their results and arrest the winners if they are not acceptable to them, so that the "mistake" of the 2006 elections will not be repeated. Arab and international parties are ready to push the election process to produce results which serve their interests.
There is no agreed Palestinian road map to deal with these points. As such, the problems cannot be solved by escaping into elections, as long as the elements of disagreement remain. Insisting on elections alone would be self-deceiving, deception of the Palestinian people and a path to go from bad to worse.
There are some serious questions to be answered. What will PLC elections offer that is new and make us avoid the problems that occurred after the 2006 elections? Have the issues that prevented the elected PLC from operating for the past 12 years gone away, or are they still there? Why didn't the PLC function after the signing of the reconciliation agreement in May 2011? Have those who prevented it from functioning stepped aside, or have they changed their political engagement?
The bitter truth is that what they did was to insist on continuing to disrupt the PLC. They even dissolved it, contrary to the Palestinian consensus, and contrary to the overwhelming popular majority which rejected such a measure. Moreover, they deprived the elected MPs of their salaries.
Surely, the problem was not in the elections themselves that the Palestinians and independent observers declared to be "free and fair"; it was in a certain party that did not like the results and refused to accept them. That party's current behaviour does not give any suggestion that it is ready for real change.
Synchronisation of elections
Hamas and the other Palestinian factions have ceded their demand that the presidential and legislative elections need to be held at the same time. This is contrary to the 2011 reconciliation agreement and conforms to the desire of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah leadership to manage the elections in their own way.
In a worst case scenario, the presidential and Palestine National Council elections might be postponed indefinitely if Hamas and other opposition groups win the PLC election. The Fatah leadership controlling the PA and PLO, whose "peace process" has Arab and international support, would use any excuse not to proceed with elections.
This is not a figment of my imagination; it is what happened after the 2006 elections. In the summer of 2005, the Palestinian factional consensus was for a PNC of about 300 members made up as follows: 132 newly-elected MPs representing the Palestinians inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip; 132 members representing the Palestinians abroad; and the remainder prominent Palestinian individuals. However, all of this was cancelled following the Hamas victory in 2006. The supposedly outgoing council, with more than 700 members, was retained under Fatah's domination.
The PA's behaviour on the ground
Abbas and the leadership of the PA and Fatah, especially over the past three years, have imposed their hegemony over the Palestinian arena, while marginalising political opponents. As part of its sanctions on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip which actually targeted Hamas by punishing ordinary people, the PA insisted on controlling all arms in the enclave; disrupted the provisional leadership framework meetings; withheld the finance due to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP); held meetings of the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) without a consensus — even the PLO factions are boycotting it; held the PNC meeting in Ramallah contrary to the Beirut agreement; dissolved the PLC with a decision of the Constitutional Court; and formed a pro-Fatah government, all of which can only be regarded as unnecessary aggravation of the Palestinian arena and negation of the other parties.
If the political environment prior to the 2006 elections was much better than that which prevails now, and there were still such problems and divisions after the election results, what behaviour might we expect from Fatah in a much more regressive environment?
If Fatah and its allies took control of the management of the resistance file, they won't be able to govern the Gaza Strip directly and completely. This would be the case even if they cornered Hamas and declared that it had lost its "popular legitimacy". The political split would continue.
If Hamas and the resistance movements won, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to govern the West Bank, or even have a real partnership in its management. This would happen not only because of the expected response of the PA and its security forces, but also because of the expected response from the Israelis, as well as the Arab and international parties hostile to the resistance and political Islam. There would be no real opportunity to implement Hamas's "reform and change" platform. Furthermore, as long as Hamas do not meet the Middle East Quartet's conditions, and do not give up their resistance to the Israeli occupation, there is no real chance of having the siege of Gaza lifted, which its 13 years of political "legitimacy" have not achieved.
In other words, the pre-election crises will be carried over to the post-election period, regardless of who wins the most votes.
According to Abbas's political behaviour over the past years, his main goal in the elections will be to "de-legitimise" Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and force it to hand over power to himself and the Fatah leadership. This brings us back to the need for a pre-election consensus on key issues.
What are the guarantees?
The current Palestinian political system, especially the PA's, does not offer sufficient guarantees for free and fair elections, nor that it would respect the election results. There is a need to dissolve the current Fatah government and form a transitional administration accepted by all parties that would sponsor the electoral process and guarantee freedoms and the transparency of procedures. There is also a need to restructure the Constitutional Court affiliated with Fatah and Abbas, and to establish a special electoral court.
Freedoms must be made available in the PA territories, election campaigning by all movements and factions must be allowed, and all forms of political detention must be stopped, as must all of Israel's efforts to block the electoral process or prevent the PLC from doing its work. This would include agreements on the right of detained MPs to delegate proxies, and on ways to convene the Council in any exceptional circumstances.
There is a need to agree on a charter that would commit all parties to go on with elections to reach the desired legislative, presidential and PNC results, until the political system itself is reformed.
What authority are we talking about?
The enthusiasm that accompanies consensus on elections must not make us forget that the PA is an authority under occupation, and its function as a tool of change is inevitably limited and relatively insignificant. Israel can thwart and disable it whenever it wants.
Moreover, elections must not blind us to the fact that the authority being contested has over time been subdued and emptied of any real meaning by Israel. The PA is no longer a feasible project to achieve a sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 territories. It has become a "functional security service entity" that serves Israel's purposes, more than those of the Palestinian national project.
Any organised movement or list that wins the elections — no matter how popular it is, and how efficient and sincere its people are — will remain governed by the Israeli conditions imposed on the ruling PA in the occupied West Bank. It will stay under siege unless it complies with its requirements in the Gaza Strip.
Hence, the "legislative" elections are not the panacea for the crisis of the Palestinian national project. They are, at best, part of the "democratic process" that may reflect the size of the Palestinian forces at home, and would contribute to the completion of the Palestinian political system at home and abroad. If the PLC finds a real chance to be activated, it may contribute to controlling the PA and improving its performance.
For more than eight years following the reconciliation agreement of 2011, the PA leadership and Fatah have been increasingly controlling and dominating the internal Palestinian environment, even as the authority's role was declining and its vulnerability has been growing under occupation. By holding the PNC and the PCC, dissolving the PLC, forming a PA government as it wishes, and cancelling the synchronisation of the presidential and legislative elections, the PA leadership and Fatah have been able to drag the other Palestinian factions towards their arena and conditions.
At the same time, all the fundamental issues associated with reforming the Palestinian political system, putting an appropriate political programme in place to manage this phase, and determine the priorities and the position towards the resistance and peace settlement tracks, have all remained as existing crises that may explode at any time. This means that the elections will reproduce the same crises unless things are remedied.
In short, Palestinian decision-making must free itself from the domination of the occupation. The genuine track starts with the reconstruction of the PLO and its institutions, overcoming the Oslo Accords and their remnants, and reinstating a national programme that maintains the Palestinian fundamentals.
This article was originally published in Arabic by Arabi 21 8 November 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.