Palestinian president Abbas stands between PM Haniyeh and senior Fatah leader Dahlan in Gaza.
(photo credit: SUHAIB SALEM / REUTERS)
Finally, after many delays, Palestinians are preparing for elections. No, the rift between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank has not been healed. No, the Palestinian Authority has not ceased to be a corrupt, dysfunctional governing body, nor has Hamas given up on its plan to reestablish a Medieval-style caliphate where the State of Israel presently exists. And these are only municipal elections, not national elections, which were last held in 2006.
Nevertheless, some cautious optimism is in order.
In the run-up to elections, Palestinians will be focusing on the democratic process of educating themselves about the issues and choosing candidates that are thought to best represent popular public opinion on issues related to local government. Palestinians will be focusing on self-government and the policies that will best help improve their lives on the municipal level.
The elections will also provide a rare opportunity to test the electoral strength of both Fatah and Hamas. Unlike the 2012 municipal elections, which were boycotted by Hamas, this time Hamas will participate.
A number of pollsters have published public opinion surveys of the Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza that have shown Hamas and Fatah enjoying practically equal support. For instance, a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in early June found that 31 percent would vote for Hamas, 34% would vote for Fatah, 9% would vote for all three other parties combined and 26% said they were undecided.
But a real election, albeit on the municipal level, would give a better indication of trends within Palestinian society.
As stated by Jihad Harb, a researcher and analyst of Palestinian society at the PSR, in an interview with Adam Rasgon, The Jerusalem Post
’s Palestinian affairs correspondent, “These elections will be the window that the Israeli government, society look through to take the pulse of Palestinian society.”
Election results will give Israel’s politicians an opportunity to assess the efficacy of decades of cooperation with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.
Still, one mustn’t pin too much hope on Palestinian municipal elections. While holding a popular vote is undoubtedly a necessary element in any democracy, it is hardly sufficient to transform the PA or Hamas-controlled Gaza into a democracy. Beyond holding regular elections on both the local and national levels, Palestinians need to put in place other essential components of every democracy.
Presently, Palestinians lack a free press. Official PA news media publish propaganda praising Fatah. Journalists who are critical of the PA and attempt to reveal its corruption are regularly intimidated. In May, for instance, PA security officers raided the home of Tareq Abu Zeid of the Al-Aqsa TV channel, which is affiliated with Hamas, and held him in detention for 37 days. Family members say Abu Zeid was tortured. Other journalists who have been arrested include Amer Abu Arafeh, Yusef Al-Shayeb, Tareq Khamis, Amir Abu Aram, Muhanad Salahat, Muhammad Awad, Adeeb Al-Atrash, Musa Al-Shaer and George Kanawati.
The PA justice system uncritically supports Fatah’s autocratic rule. In the same Abu Zeid case, a PA-affiliated court in Nablus turned down seven petitions for his release.
The situation in Gaza is even worse. Therefore, it is unlikely that elections held in either Gaza or the West Bank will be particularly free or fair.
The 2006 Palestinian elections taught the world that democratic elections can be exploited by Islamists who are utterly opposed to the democratic process. A similar process unfolded in Egypt, which brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood for a short time. In Turkey, democratic elections have led to the rise to power of an increasingly Islamist government that has stifled basic liberties, such as freedom of the press.
The holding of elections is a positive first step toward the building of democratic rule for Palestinians. But elections alone are not enough. Freedom of expression and a judicial system that enforces human rights are no less important. Until the Palestinian political leadership ceases to be a choice between corrupt functionaries and religious extremists, true democracy will be elusive, no matter how many elections are held.