Palestinians will return to the polls on March 26 to complete the second phase of local elections. The first phase, an election held on December 11, 2021, produced a victory for independent candidates who claimed 70% of the available 1,503 seats. Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic party, won the last Palestinian national election on January 25, 2006, an election the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs found was “vigorously contested and generally peaceful.” The Fatah party has not won a national election in 17 years. A December 27, 2021, poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) suggests Fatah may lose again in the March 26, 2022, election. We preview the upcoming election and offer some answers to the question: Why does the Fatah party lose at the polls?
As PCPSR polling data suggests, the Fatah party possesses the most popular ideology. However, PCPSR polling consistently finds that Palestinians are furious about the corruption and ineptitude of the Fatah leadership. Indeed, 73% of West Bank and 77% of Gazan Palestinians want Palestinian president and Fatah party leader Mahmoud Abbas to resign. Palestinian voters who would otherwise cast their ballots for the Fatah party lists give their votes to independent lists or even to Hamas in protest against the current Fatah leadership.
These protest votes are responses to Fatah’s failure of leadership, which includes Abbas’s decision to cancel the legislative and presidential elections scheduled for May 2021. PCPSR polling revealed that more than 70% of Palestinians wanted legislative and presidential elections in May. The constituencies that would vote for Fatah lists are divided, with many casting ballots for lists of parties independent of Fatah and lists representing families. Lists supporting Mohammed Dahlan, who Abbas dismissed in 2011 from Fatah leadership, also draw down support from the Fatah lists. Hamas benefits from this division at its constituency remain loyal in its voting for Hamas lists.
Fatah has failed to prevent Israeli human rights violations settlement activity and has not effectively used negotiation. Many Palestinians see the Palestinian Authority collaborating with the Israeli military establishment. In contrast, Hamas is credited for contesting Israel’s attempt to control Islamic holy sites and standing up for Palestinians in east Jerusalem with rocket attacks during the May 2021 Hamas-Israel war. And the PA is seen by 63% of Palestinians as responsible for the killing of dissident Nizar Banat by Palestinian security forces, a significant violation of human rights. Finally, many Palestinians blame Fatah for the poor economy, failing to promote democracy and neglecting the need to foster Palestinian unity.
Despite the political, economic, security, and other factors that the Fatah party has mishandled, the party can recover, given that many Palestinians agree with its general positions. Marwan Barghouti, the most popular Palestinian politician according to PCPSR polls, would outperform Abu Mazen, Hamas and other candidates in an election, and has crafted a Palestinian agenda that many Palestinians find persuasive.
Barghouti was born in the West Bank, actively participated in the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 and was deported to Jordan by Israel for seven years. During his stay in Jordan, he conducted organizational work in the Palestinian territories, strengthening his relations with the organizational leaders there, making him an influential figure. He returned to the West Bank under the 1994 Oslo Accords and he supported it. He also participated in the second intifada in 2000. Israel captured him and sentenced him to five life terms for supporting attacks on Israeli civilians. According to international observers, the trial was not fair and included numerous breaches of international law.
In 1989, he was elected to the Revolutionary Council, serving as its youngest member. Then, he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996 and in 2006, won a seat on the Fatah Central Committee in 2016, while in an Israeli prison. He has served as Secretary-General of the Fatah Movement and the Secretary-General of the Higher Movement in the West Bank.
While in an Israeli prison, he works to promote Palestinian national unity and played a central role in persuading Palestinian movements, including Hamas, to participate in the 2006 local and legislative elections. He is also highly critical of corruption in the Fatah party and the PA.
The most recent PCPSR poll suggests Barghouti is in the best position to break Fatah’s losing streak.
Eid H. J. Mustafa, Ph.D., works in the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior and is the author of The Issues and challenges Facing Palestinian Officials in the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations 2001-2009.
David A. Frank, Ph.D., is professor of political communication at the University of Oregon. He is the author of several articles, book chapters, and co-authored a book on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.