PA elections are off: A good thing?

For Fatah, it was not Hamas’ popularity that had it worried but rather its own declining position; the two aren’t mutually inclusive. In fact, most polls show Fatah maintaining an overall edge.

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September 12, 2016 20:21
3 minute read.
alestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas casts his vote at PA headquarters in Ramallah in 2005

alestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas casts his vote at PA headquarters in Ramallah in 2005. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Tit for tat: Hamas judges disqualify Fatah candidates in Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ high court in the West Bank postpones the municipal vote. The status of what had been prematurely billed as the first competitive Palestinian elections in over a decade is now up in the air. From Washington to Doha, one can almost hear the collective sigh of relief – but is there truly a long-term benefit from maintaining the current status quo? For Fatah’s backers, concerned about popular dissatisfaction with the performance of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a potential embarrassment at the polls has temporarily been avoided.

For Western donors, in particular, difficult policy decisions that would have ensued from even a symbolic Hamas presence on West Bank local councils have now been kicked down the road.

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For Hamas’ leadership and foreign patrons, the postponement means the Islamist movement’s actual popularity on the Palestinian street and that of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology behind it will not be put to the ultimate test, the ballot box – at least not next month. After subjecting the Gaza Strip to repeated, self destructive military engagements with Israel since breaking from the West Bank in 2007, Hamas will now have to wait a little longer for a demonstration of gratitude from its subjects.

Despite respective supporters’ concerns, these elections were never firmly on solid ground to begin with, and the high court’s verdict not entirely a shock. When the elections were announced in June, it was widely anticipated that Hamas (and thus Gaza), would opt out as it did for the 2012 municipal vote. That year, in an exercise familiar to observers of elections during the Mubarak era in Egypt, the only real competition occurred between rival factions within the ruling party Fatah. Not expecting and not necessarily prepared for competition this time around, many in Fatah circles had been searching for an out, as was the leadership of Hamas, surprised by an emerging degree of Fatah internal unity displayed during the latter’s campaign preparations on the former’s home turf in Gaza.

For Fatah, it was not Hamas’ popularity that had it worried but rather its own declining position; the two aren’t mutually inclusive. In fact, most polls show Fatah maintaining an overall edge, albeit slim, in its rivalry with Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza combined. But that might not have been enough to secure outright victory in Fatah’s stronghold of the West Bank, where 69 percent of respondents in a recent poll to the question of whether the PA was democratic responded in the negative; views on transparency, accountability, respect for freedom of speech and human rights all following a similar trend.

The situation is no better with respect to popular sentiment toward Hamas’ tenure in Gaza after years of Islamist rule, according to the same poll. However, the West Bank under the PA was meant to be something different, a model to which Gazans under Hamas could aspire, or at least that was the notional intent of significant amounts of foreign assistance over the past decade, including approximately one billion in US taxpayer dollars since 2009.

The reality is, whether through conscious design or force of habit, absent real political competition and the checks and balances that come with it, the Palestinian body politic has taken on a number of attributes common to the Middle East’s presidential systems of the past half-century: one-party dominance; rule by executive decree; little tolerance of public dissent; high levels of perceived corruption; and exaggerated budget allocations for the security services. That this model survives in the Palestinian context when the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Syrian, Libyan and Iraqi models have all come under assault in recent years is more a factor of unresolved national issues rather than of any positive or popular characteristics.

While the high court decision may appear to be a win for the status quo to each party’s respective supporters, where there are winners, there are normally losers. With a democratic reckoning of the past 10 years of governance and political policies in both the West Bank and Gaza now put off, an opportunity is potentially being lost to commence a long overdue recalibration of the Palestinian political system. If the postponement proves permanent, the loser will undoubtedly be Palestinian democracy – something that not long ago was deemed a necessary prerequisite for one day resolving the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The author, a former senior adviser in the US State Department Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, was a member of a delegation assessing the Palestinian electoral environment, August 28 – September 1, 2016.


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