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Will Upcoming Elections Bring Any Change to the Palestinian People?

Three questions to Dr. Alaa Tartir

Will Upcoming Elections Bring Any Change to the Palestinian People?
 Dr. Alaa Tartir
Researcher and Academic Coordinator at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Early January, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree announcing parliamentary and presidential elections, making it the first Palestinian vote in 15 years. Scheduled to be held in May and July in the West Bank and Gaza strip, these elections appear as a strong signal to the international community that the Palestinian Authority is speeding up its democratic transition. But some remain sceptical as to what this vote will really achieve. We asked Dr. Alaa Tartir, Palestinian researcher, his view on this decision and on the possible outcome. 

The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced the first parliamentary and presidential elections for the Palestinian Authority in May and July in 15 years. What is behind this decision?

I wish I could say that the legislative and presidential elections announcement is due to home-grown, local, people-driven reasons, but in reality, it is far from that. I wish I could say it is due to popular demand and public pressure, or for the purpose of reforming the political system or reinventing the existing styles of governance, or even to renew the political leadership. I wish I could say it is a result of a long and complex process of democratization that elections will be "crowning". I wish I could say it is due to the outcomes and consequences of effective accountability mechanisms, or for the purpose of reviving dysfunctional organizational structures like the ones of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). I wish I could say it is due to a serious workshop that aims to convene a comprehensive meaningful national dialogue that revisits the Palestinian political program and adopts a forward-looking strategy and concrete action plan to realise rights and freedom.

None of the above-mentioned elements are reasons behind the intention to hold elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip later this year. The decision to hold elections is largely due to external - both international and regional - pressure and conditionality. The political leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) - and implicitly the leadership of Hamas - wanted to send a clear message to the new US administration that they are "ready for business", they are ready to return to the "old normal", and they are ready to receive the US financial "aid". They also wanted to send a clear sign to the Biden administration that they are happy to return to the "negotiation table", and by holding the elections, they think they are pre-empting the Israeli accusation that Palestinians are divided and fragmented to "negotiate meaningfully". This "internationally pleasing paradigm" is not a new practice as far as the PA leadership is concerned, in fact it is the dominant practice even though it has been detrimental to the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom, equality, and self-determination.

But beyond the pressure to please the Biden administration, the PA leadership is also under strong pressure from the donor community (especially the Europeans) to "renew their democratic mandate". However, donors are only interested in "nominal democracy", and they are interested in seeing "the Palestinians going to the ballot box", as one senior European diplomat told me, adding "we understand this is not real democracy, but it is better than nothing, and we are here to support". 

Beyond the pressure to please the Biden administration, the Palestinian Authority leadership is also under strong pressure from the donor community (especially the Europeans) to "renew their democratic mandate".

The pressure exerted, directly and indirectly, by the donors community can’t be underestimated - as far as the elections announcement is concerned -, especially with the dire financial situation of the PA. 

Furthermore, the new evolving regional dynamics, in light of the so-called Abraham Accords, is another factor to add to the mix which the Palestinian political leadership (PA and Hamas alike) could not dismiss and had to respond to and live with. That being said, most Arab countries that are engaged in this process are not keen on the idea of election per se - as most of them don’t have fair and free election at home anyway -, but they are keen on playing a key role in "reshaping the region" and "re-engaging the Palestinians" largely in line with the US administration’s plan and their regional parameters in the Middle East. 

What can be expected from these elections?

Certainly, neither a democratic transition nor a reformation of the Palestinian political system. At best, it could result in a "nominal democracy", but the underpinning structures of repression and authoritarianism are well-rooted, and cannot be changed by a partial voting that will be very far from being free or fair, and here I am not talking about the transparency element of the election act, but rather about ability to campaign freely and compete fairly.

It is also really crucial to acknowledge that any "democratic moment" (like the election in this case) cannot and should not be conflated with "democratic processes" or "democratic environment". Any democratic practice cannot be really democratic within an overall authoritarian and repressive setting. Celebrating the trappings of "democracy" is very different than celebrating "real democracy". It is like celebrating the trappings of statehood in the absence of state and sovereignty, which is a practice that the Palestinian political leadership is used to, and my fear is that this conflation could easily slip to the election domain. 

But assuming that the legislative elections do take place as envisaged in May, we should not simply assume that the presidential election will take place in July. It is anything but a linear process, simply because it might well be the case that the occurrence of the presidential election is largely dependent on the results of the legislative elections. If and when these elections take place, only Palestinians living in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip can (have the right to) vote in these elections.

But even the participation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is not guaranteed as it requires an explicit Israeli approval (and it is in this domain that the European actors are trying to practice pressure on Israel to allow this to happen). If it all happens as planned, it would still miss half of the Palestinian people who are longing for the presence of legitimate, representative, and accountable institutions.

Will Palestinians outside the occupied territories participate?

These Palestinians can only vote in the election for the PLO bodies such as the Palestinian National Council (PNC) which is - theoretically - the parliament of the Palestinian people. Although Abbas’ announcement determined the end of August 2021 as a date for the PNC election to take place - wherever possible -, it would be a mistake to think or believe that this was a genuine call for PLO/PNC elections. Conducting such elections, even only wherever is possible, requires some serious preparations at the political and logistical level, and there simply isn’t enough time, resources or even political will to ensure that this will happen. All political parties are well aware of this reality, but they all decided to turn a blind eye concerning this crucial matter under the pretext that "any election is better than nothing". At best, we could see a replication of the 2018 scenario when the PNC convened in Ramallah to choose the executive committee of the PLO which was a painful reminder of how Palestinian democracy is being undermined by Palestinian leaders.

However, this short-sighted approach that avoids dealing with fundamental issues comprehensively and holistically, can only result in the solidification of the current political program and the prolongation of the current leadership regime, especially the ones of Fatah and Hamas. Accordingly, with the intentional and unintentional assistance of other political factions, both Fatah and Hamas are preparing to emerge victorious from the forthcoming election regardless of who will win more seats. The looming reality is that both Fatah and Hamas will continue to hold the vast majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) instead of being punished and held accountable for all the damages and harm they have caused to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination over the past 15 years.

If it all happens as planned, it would still miss half of the Palestinian people who are longing for the presence of legitimate, representative, and accountable institutions.

This begs the question: what is the point of an election that is perceived as both a means and an end, with no serious consideration to larger and more fundamental dimensions concerning the overall political system, strategy, and vision? It is only when the existing dominant political actors stop re-enforcing each other and are instead held accountable that a glimpse of hope for a fundamental positive change will start to emerge. And then, the elections will have a different meaning and serve a different purpose. 



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