Elections under fire are Palestine’s impossible democracy dilemma

An electoral worker leaves the Palestinian Central Elections Commission's office in Gaza City (Reuters)

Ramzy Baroud

Middle East Monitor  /  March 9, 2021

Many Palestinian intellectuals and political analysts find themselves in the unenviable position of having to declare whether they support or reject the upcoming Palestinian elections which are scheduled for May 22 and July 30. There are no easy answers.

The long-awaited decree in January by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to hold legislative and presidential elections in the coming months was welcomed widely; not as a triumph for democracy, but as the first tangible positive outcome of dialogue between rival Palestinian factions, mainly Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas.

As far as inner Palestinian dialogue is concerned, the elections, if unobstructed, could present a ray of hope that, finally, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories will enjoy a degree of democratic representation. This will be a first step towards a more comprehensive representation that could include millions of Palestinians in the diaspora.

However, even such humble expectations are conditioned on many “ifs”: if Palestinian factions honour their commitments to the Istanbul Agreement of 24 September last year; if Israel allows Palestinians, including Jerusalemites, to vote unhindered and refrains from arresting Palestinian candidates; if the US-led international community accepts the outcome of the democratic elections without punishing victorious parties and candidates; if the legislative and presidential elections are followed by the more consequential and substantive election for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament in exile; and so on.

If any of these conditions are unsatisfactory, the May election is likely to serve no practical purpose, aside from giving Abbas and his rivals the veneer of legitimacy, thus allowing them to buy yet more time and acquire yet more funds from their financial benefactors.

All of this compels us to ask if democracy is possible under military occupation. Almost immediately after the last democratic Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, the outcome of which displeased Israel, 62 Palestinian ministers and members of the new parliament were thrown into prison; many are still there.

History is repeating itself. Israel has already started to arrest Hamas leaders and members in the West Bank. On 22 February, at least twenty Palestinian activists, including Hamas officials, were detained, sending a clear message to Palestinians from the occupation authorities that Israel does not recognise their dialogue, their unity agreements, or their democracy.

Two days later, Omar al-Barghouti, a 67-year-old leader in the Hamas movement from the village of Kober, north of Ramallah, was summoned by Israeli military intelligence officers in the occupied West Bank and warned against running in the May election. “The Israeli officer warned me not to run in the upcoming election and threatened me with imprisonment if I did,” Barghouti was quoted as saying by Al-Monitor.

The Palestinian Basic Law allows prisoners to stand as candidates in elections, whether legislative or presidential, simply because the most popular of Palestinian leaders are often behind bars. Marwan Barghouti is one of them. Imprisoned since 2002, Barghouti remains Fatah’s most popular leader, though appreciated more by the movement’s young cadre than by Abbas’s old guard. The latter coterie has benefited immensely from the corrupt political patronage upon which the 85-year-old president has constructed his authority.

To sustain this corrupt system, Abbas and his clique have laboured to marginalise Barghouti, leading to the suggestion that Israel’s imprisonment of Fatah’s vibrant leader serves the interests of the current Palestinian president. This claim has much substance, not only because Abbas has done little to pressure Israel to release Barghouti, but also because all credible public opinion polls suggest that Barghouti is far more popular among Fatah’s supporters — in fact among all Palestinians — than the president, who is also the head of Fatah and, indeed, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

On 11 February, Abbas dispatched Hussein al-Sheikh, the Minister of Civilian Affairs and a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, to dissuade Barghouti from running in the presidential election. An ideal scenario for the Palestinian president would be to take advantage of Barghouti’s popularity by having him lead the Fatah list in the contest for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Hence, Abbas could ensure a strong turnout of Fatah supporters, while retaining the presidency for himself.

Barghouti rejected Abbas’ request vehemently, thus raising an unexpected challenge to the president, who now risks dividing the Fatah vote, losing the PLC election to Hamas yet again, and losing the presidential election to Barghouti.

Between the nightly raids and crackdowns by the Israeli military and the political intrigues within the divided Fatah movement, one wonders if the elections, if they take place, will finally allow Palestinians to mount a united front in the struggle against Israeli occupation and for Palestinian freedom. There is also the issue of the possible position that the “international community” will take when the election results are known. News reports speak of efforts made by Hamas to seek guarantees from Qatar and Egypt “to ensure Israel will not pursue its representatives and candidates in the upcoming elections,” Al-Monitor has reported.

But what kind of guarantees can Arab countries obtain from Tel Aviv? And what kind of leverage can Doha and Cairo have when Israel continues to disregard the UN and show contempt for international law and the International Criminal Court?

Despite all of this uncertainty, can Palestinian democracy afford to subsist in its current inertia? Abbas’s mandate as president expired in 2009, the PLC’s mandate expired in 2010 and, in fact, the Palestinian Authority was set up as an interim political body, whose function should have ended in 1999. Since then, the “Palestinian leadership” has not enjoyed legitimacy among Palestinians, deriving its relevance, instead, from the support of its international benefactors, who are rarely interested in supporting democracy in Palestine.

The only silver lining in the story is that Fatah and Hamas have also agreed on the restructuring of the PLO, which is currently monopolised by Abbas’s Fatah movement. Whether the democratic revamping of the PLO takes place or not depends largely on the outcome of the May and July elections.

Palestine, like other Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, has a crisis of political legitimacy. As an occupied land whose people have little or no freedom, though, one is justified to argue that true democracy under these horrific conditions cannot possibly be achieved. Holding elections under occupation, and frequently under fire, are Palestine’s impossible democracy dilemma.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle; he has authored a number of books on the Palestinian struggle including The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London)