Hamas, the other Palestinian factions, civil society, public figures and writers who oppose the idea of having partial local elections are right to do so, because such polls seek to evade a comprehensive approach. They would also break the law, which requires elections for all municipal and village councils to be held on the same day, and not in stages unless there is a valid reason for doing otherwise. It is unacceptable for the Palestinian Authority to claim that the coronavirus is such a reason. Holding the elections in stages does not make it easier to fight the pandemic.
The real reason for the PA to suggest holding the elections separately is that it wants to regain some legitimacy, please the international community — especially Europe — and buy itself and Fatah some time to regain its lost popularity. It can also use the first stage as a test to see if its candidates win; only then will it know whether or not to proceed with the second stage. It is known that elections in the large cities are fiercely competitive, and Fatah’s candidates have less chance of winning than others. If they do not win, determining a date for the elections will not prevent the second phase from being postponed if the results are undesirable to the leadership. This is what happened with the general election.
Victory is expected, because local, village and municipal councils in Area C of the occupied West Bank, which are under the control of the Israeli authorities in terms of civil and security affairs, are usually won by the PA’s candidates and families, especially if Hamas boycotts them. Many win the lists uncontested. For example, in 2017 there were competitive elections in 159 bodies, but in 199 bodies only one list of candidates ran and thus won uncontested. In the 2021 local elections, competitive elections were held in 123 bodies, but 215 had just one list ran and won uncontested. The winning party in the uncontested elections was usually Fatah.
While the elections must be comprehensive, local, general and held regularly — and this is what we must continue to work to achieve — it is incorrect to say that it is not the right time to hold local elections because there are other priorities. The importance of the elections lies in them being held on time and regularly. These elections are overdue following the presidential decree earlier this year that postponed all elections for six months in order to focus on legislative and presidential elections and the completion of the National Assembly. These national elections were then postponed indefinitely for fear of their results, and not because of Israel’s refusal to hold them in Jerusalem in accordance with the protocol concerning elections in Oslo II. This protocol does not guarantee Palestinian sovereignty over the elections, as claimed, but rather preserves Israeli sovereignty by limiting the number of polling stations, having a maximum number of voters, and preventing the Central Elections Commission from supervising the process.
Dialogue about participating in or boycotting local elections by those opposed to the decision to hold them in phases is valid, but it is a mistake not to take part in any local elections, provided they have even a minimum level of freedom and integrity and the results are respected. This is because they give the voter the opportunity to choose, and to hold local bodies accountable, especially since Israeli interference in them is less than their interference in the legislative and presidential elections. Nevertheless, Israeli occupation officials threaten candidates for the local elections and try to prevent them from standing, and they arrest some either beforehand or after they win.
It is worth noting that the overall participation rate in local elections was around 54 per cent on the past two occasions, and this rises in villages and small municipalities, while it decreases in major towns and cities, such as Nablus, Hebron, Al-Bireh and Ramallah. In the last round of elections, the percentage was 21 per cent in Nablus, 29 per cent in Al-Bireh, 34 per cent in Hebron and 39 per cent in Ramallah, while in some small local authorities it was more than 70 and 80 per cent.
If it is natural for Hamas to reject the unilateral manner in which the decision to hold divided elections was made to cover up the postponement of the general election, including the refusal to hold them in Gaza. However, as the de facto authority in the besieged territory, Hamas is required by law to hold elections there on the same day. Moreover, refusing to hold local elections in Gaza will count against Hamas, not least since it resorted to appointing municipal councils instead of electing them.
It is unreasonable and unacceptable to say that holding local elections all at once in Gaza would perpetuate the division or break the law, because allowing the people, who are the source of authority, to decide on such matters cannot be illegal. Indeed, if Hamas were to do so, it would present a democratic model of governance, but this has not yet happened.
Is Hamas afraid to hold elections in case it loses as a result of the bad governance model resulting from many contributory factors, the most important of which are the siege and military offensives against the Palestinians in Gaza? The popularity it gained due to its steadfastness in the face of the Israeli attacks and the valiant resistance that it displayed in the Sword of Jerusalem battle will not necessarily be reflected in local elections held in one phase in the Gaza Strip.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arab48 on 5 October 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.