Hamas announced last week that it would participate in municipal elections across the West Bank and Gaza in October. It is a surprising statement given that the group boycotted the previous municipal elections in 2012 and has not participated in general elections since 2006. In other words, this could be the first chance for Palestinians to vote in a contest between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party in over a decade.
Fatah has been loath to compete against Hamas since the latter pulled off an upset in the 2006 legislative elections, and then proceeded in 2007 to oust Fatah from the Gaza Strip by force before creating a mini-state in the territory that exists to this day. Bitter fighting has continued since the split. When the two parties formed a unity government in 2014, one of the conditions was to hold general elections within six months. Within a year, however, that unity government collapsed.
History suggests Fatah stands to lose more at the polls than Hamas. The previous municipal elections in 2012 were a disaster for Fatah. Voter turnout dropped from 77 percent in the previous elections six years earlier to 55 percent, and Fatah lost in six of the West Bank’s 11 districts. Embarrassingly, rogue members of Fatah ran against the party and won in key districts, including in the de-facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah. One Palestinian academic described the elections as “a landmark of the end of Fatah.”
The head of the Palestinian Authority’s Central Elections Commission (CEC) declared this week that both parties would cooperate in the upcoming municipal elections. But the CEC complained last May that the PA had slashed its budget, impacting its ability to prepare for elections on the ground, while Hamas has also hampered their past efforts. When Abbas proposed elections in 2009, Hamas barred the CEC from entering Gaza. Ahead of the municipal elections in 2012, Hamas initially allowed the commission to register voters, only to abruptly halt registration within weeks of allowing the CEC into Gaza.
The municipal elections, if they happen, are a step in the right direction, but Palestinian democracy requires more. In addition to impeding any progress towards new elections, both Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank harass journalists, attack labor unions, and restrict parliamentarians’ movement. Rather than two-party rule in two territories, Palestinians are faced with one-party autocracies in both the West Bank and Gaza. After the 2012 municipal elections, Abbas remarked: “There is no way to govern people except through democracy and ballot boxes.” The rule of both Fatah and Hamas has proven otherwise.
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley