Middle East Monitor / November 11, 2019
Finally, it appears that the two major factions, Fatah and Hamas — or rather the Palestinian Authority and Hamas — are preparing for elections. What’s more, both sides reaffirm their willingness to hold elections that are 10 years overdue.
Presidential elections were supposed to take place in 2009 according to the Palestinian Elections Law, while legislative elections were due to take place in 2010. Mahmoud Abbas is still President of the PA, despite not holding the 2009 poll, and legislative council members have largely kept quiet about getting paid while not working, and have not called for new elections. Now it looks as if the observations of Palestinian intellectual and international commentators about the absence of democracy in Palestine and the violations of the laws have pushed the factions to look for a way out through elections.
Most factions and members of the public are demanding presidential and legislative elections as well as the election of the Palestinian National Council, as the PLO bodies also lack legitimacy. The PA has previously suggested legislative elections only, but this is unacceptable to the majority, who believe that elections must begin with a vote for the presidency, and there is no objection to holding both presidential and legislative elections at the same time. It appears that the parties agreed to this, which is positive and will contribute strongly to the establishment of democracy in the West Bank and Gaza. Of course, we cannot claim to have a real democracy under occupation, but at least there will be agreement to obey a law governing civic relations and civilian life.
The ongoing existence of the Israeli occupation actually presents a major obstacle to free, fair and transparent elections. The situation in the West Bank and Gaza is not conducive to democratic elections in accordance with internationally recognised principles. For years, in addition to the restrictions imposed by the Israelis, the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have suffered at the hands of the factions and faced persecution by their own security services. The factions have silenced the people, placed them under surveillance, prevented their access to accurate information and limited freedom of speech by arresting journalists, academics and critics. The two main factions have also seized public jobs and controlled people’s lives.
People in the West Bank and Gaza have brought themselves to accept their own submission to the strongest faction. Security officers have prevented the people from expressing themselves freely, and contributed to the oppression by protecting corrupt officials. This is why people in the occupied territories are living through the nightmare of humiliation at the hands of their Palestinian brothers, while sinking into a gloomy psychological state that is not easy to get out of. In such a situation, it is difficult to make balanced decisions about who to elect and why.
The domestic Palestinian infrastructure needs to be rehabilitated to be a good incubator for free and fair elections. I believe that this process needs at least one year to get it right. During this period, the factions need to remove all means of persecution and the suppression of ordinary people and media professionals alike, as well as lectures, seminars and interviews on television and radio. They should rein-in their security services, and stop them from harming people simply because of their opinions; surveillance should also stop, unless someone is clearly and openly a threat to national security. This will require a halt to security measures that serve the interests of the Israeli occupation, focusing solely on Palestinian civil security and strengthening the national security forces.
And to make things comprehensive, it is necessary to focus on programmes to control the security services and prevent their interference in the elections. No civilian or military official has the right to ask his or her staff to elect a particular person; they have no right to interfere with anyone’s personal freedoms. From past experience, we know that officials have intervened and threatened those who did not vote for certain lists or individuals.
Laws and regulations governing electoral campaigns must include the financial ceiling allowed for campaigning, as well as the role of the media. The latter must give balanced coverage to all candidates, providing accurate information in the process. The media must not be allowed to mislead people for factional reasons and self-interest.
It follows, therefore, that the Central Election Commission should not be biased towards any one party or faction. It needs to explain to the people the tricks that Israel and the United States are expected to play to influence the election results.
Finally, the people need guarantees that those results will be respected. Some factions have previously overlooked election results in order to turn against the winners. This led to chaos in the West Bank and Gaza, and then a bloody near civil war.
If elections cannot be held in a truly democratic atmosphere, then a Palestinian leadership council should be formed to replace Abbas, along with a legal advisory council to follow up on legislation and judicial issues.
Having said all of this, despite all the hype, there is a strong probability that there will be no elections. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the Zionists and the Americans do not want elections because they fear the victory of the opponents of Oslo. Also, Hamas has been against elections for a long time, and it is easy to fabricate a problem or crisis which will provide an excuse for the PA to postpone or cancel them again. The issue of Jerusalem is likely to be the basis of this argument and obstruction.
Abdul Sattar is a professor at Al-Najah National University, Palestine