October 12, 2016 | Foreign Affairs

Palestine’s Democratic Deficit

Co-written by Mor Yahalom.

Last Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority postponed local municipal elections to early 2017 after an escalating series of reprisals between Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party in the West Bank and his Islamist Hamas rivals in Gaza ended in a stalemate. The local elections would have been the first since 2012 (when Fatah ran unopposed in the West Bank) and the first democratic contest between Fatah and Hamas since the latter’s victory in the 2006 legislative elections. Instead, the elections, originally slated for October 8, were delayed, then proposed in the West Bank only, and then finally postponed for four months. Such is the state of the Fatah-Hamas rivalry that both parties view even local city council elections as too risky to countenance.

The latest breakdown between Fatah and Hamas should remove any doubt about the potential for reconciliation between the two largest Palestinian political parties. Both sides viewed the municipal elections as a zero-sum contest. Abbas and his Fatah party feared the Gaza-based Hamas party winning any city councils in the West Bank, and Hamas feared the same for Fatah candidates in Gaza.

Fatah officials, in particular, had every reason to be on edge. The party has suffered embarrassing defeats in almost every popular election for a decade. A devastating loss to Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections led to the 2007 civil war that divided the Fatah-led West Bank from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Since then, Fatah has seen its popularity diminish in everything from routine polls to student elections.

The first municipal elections in nearly three decades took place shortly after former PA leader Yasser Arafat died in November 2004. The elections were scheduled to take place over several rounds, with the first round occurring that December. Although Fatah won the first round, Hamas gained control of several Gaza Strip village councils and won nine municipalities to Fatah’s fourteen. Fatah won the next two rounds, but Hamas’ success in major towns—such as Qalqilya in the West Bank and Rafah in Gaza—shocked Fatah. By the fourth and final round, Hamas had won 73 percent of the votes in the remaining municipalities. When the final votes were tallied, Fatah’s anticipated blowout was closer to a narrow victory.

The 2004–05 municipal elections should have been a warning sign to Fatah. Instead, a month after the fourth round, the two parties competed again in parliamentary elections across the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Hamas dominated the elections, winning 74 out of 132 seats to Fatah’s 45. A year later, the two sides would fight a brutal civil war in the Gaza Strip, culminating in Hamas control over the coastal enclave. The conflict between the two factions, one that physically divided the West Bank from Gaza, persists until today

Since then, successive reconciliation negotiations have attempted to bridge the gap and prepare for new elections. After unity talks in Doha in 2012, the two sides agreed to form a national consensus government and prepare for elections. Yet within months, negotiations over voter registration collapsed. A Hamas spokesman accused Fatah of duplicity, and the Islamist group withdrew its support and announced it would boycott the 2012 local elections.

Although it ran in those elections seemingly unopposed, Fatah still found a way to lose. Indeed, many Fatah members defected from the party ahead of those municipal elections, and the remnants of the party list won in only six of the West Bank’s eleven districts. Voter turnout dropped from 77 percent in the previous local elections to just 55 percent, and Fatah lost control of city councils in traditional powerhouse cities like Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin. One Palestinian academic described the results as a harbinger to “the end of Fatah.” 

Four years later, Fatah has done little to improve its image. Despite its dismal performance in the 2012 municipal elections, in 2011, nearly 70 percent of Palestinians said that they trusted Fatah. Earlier this year, the same polling service found that number had dropped to roughly 50 percent. Another poll in June found Fatah and Hamas in a dead heat if elections were to take place today. Embarrassingly, that same poll showed 65 percent of Palestinians wanted Fatah party leader Mahmoud Abbas, now 11 years into a 4-year term, to resign as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Even more worrying for Fatah, Hamas has trounced the party in the last two student elections at the oldest Palestinian university, Birzeit. Student elections have carried more weight in Palestinian society in recent years, as they’ve become the only form of democratic expression in the West Bank and Gaza. That the Hamas bloc defeated Fatah at the most important Palestinian university, located just miles from the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah, has sent shockwaves through Fatah. “We lost big,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and a leader of Fatah after the 2015 Birzeit elections. “My house feels suffocated.”  

Fatah had undoubtedly hoped that Hamas would not participate when the municipal elections were announced earlier this year. Instead, Hamas surprised Fatah by announcing in July it would field candidates in both the West Bank and Gaza. From that moment, both sides began undermining the other. Abbas issued anexecutive decree in August mandating that nine local councils in the West Bank have a Christian mayor, an apparent attempt to keep the Islamists of Hamas out of contention. Hamas responded by accusing Abbas of being undemocratic, and complained that the Fatah-affiliated PA forces were arresting its members in the West Bank.

Both parties showed anxiety the longer the campaign went on. Fatah membersbegged Abbas in August to cancel the elections out of fear Hamas would win. When the lists were announced for candidates in Gaza, Hamas officials began to worry that Fatah might actually win in several contests in the coastal enclave. Last month, Hamas officials disqualified several Fatah candidates. Both sides accused the other of sabotaging the electoral process until the PA’s Supreme Court stepped in and announced the elections would take place in the West Bank only. Following that announcement, Abbas’ Central Elections Commission—the head electoral body of the PA—recommended that elections be delayed six months. A day later, the PA accepted the recommendation, but for four months.

The municipal elections are a microcosm of Palestinian politics today. Since their bloody civil war in 2007, both Fatah and Hamas have viewed any concessions to the other as weakness. Reconciliation agreements, unity governments, and proposed elections have all collapsed between the two. While their party leaders bicker, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will likely go another year without casting a meaningful vote. 

Grant Rumley is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley.


Palestinian Politics