Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party made a disappointing showing in yesterday's local elections, with its chosen candidates failing to secure local majorities in key cities including Ramallah despite a boycott by its chief rival, Hamas.
“This is a landmark of the end of Fatah,” says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA).
“In the absence of Hamas … Fatah could not lead completely as expected,” he says, pointing to the northern city of Nablus where the official Fatah list got only five of 15 available seats, losing the rest to Fatah independents. “There was no consensus, no leadership coherence, no commitment for the movement.”
The Associated Press cited preliminary results showing Fatah failed to receive majorities in five of 11 major towns.
The results add to mounting concerns about Fatah – and the broader Palestinian leadership – losing its legitimacy. Mr. Abbas, who doubles as Fatah chairman, has been unable to secure progress on a variety of fronts, from peace talks with Israel, to reconciliation with Hamas, to last year's membership bid at the United Nations, to an economic crisis that has once again delayed payday for Palestinian Authority (PA) employees – all of whom are still waiting to be paid for September.
Steppingstone to national elections
Municipal elections, the first in at least six years, were seen as a potential way to boost the PA's credibility and create momentum for national elections – badly needed to restore the Palestinian legislature after a split five years ago with Hamas, the Islamist movement that has governed the coastal Gaza Strip ever since.
“I think that a lot of people across the political spectrum are hoping and working to use these elections as a starting point toward national elections and to pressure Hamas … to conform with the will of the majority of the people to have the national elections as soon as possible,” says Qais Abdul-Karim, a veteran politician and member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Mr. Abdul-Karim says overall the elections strengthened the Palestinian political system, but argues that time is running short for nationwide elections – and that there is growing support among decisionmakers in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for holding such elections even if Hamas threatens to boycott them as well.
“In my opinion, the time that we have got is very narrow,” he says. “I think that there is an urgent need for the political system to renovate … its legitimacy through [national] elections.”
The fact that the municipal elections happened at all was deemed a success, but the exercise was not as robust as it could have been. Voting was slated to take place in only 93 of 354 localities, according to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission; 82 localities were unprepared and were expected to vote in a second round Nov. 24, while 179 localities fielded only one choice for voters and thus a vote was unnecessary.
Voter turnout was reported at 54.8 percent – down from the 77.7 percent turnout seen in 2006 parliamentary elections, but roughly on par with voter turnout in recent US presidential elections. While the Hamas boycott likely contributed to the decrease, some Hamas supporters may have put aside their politics to cast their vote for improving municipal services like roads, garbage collection, and sewage systems.
“I know for sure that some [Hamas members] did vote because this is the municipal election and this is for the services of the city,” said graphic designer Majd Hadid, standing outside a polling station in central Ramallah yesterday.
Mr. Hadid and his architect cousin, Mohannad Hadid, who had come all the way from Abu Dhabi to cast his vote, said they voted for Fatah members – but not those chosen by Fatah chairman and Abbas.
“Getting someone from the president’s office is not how we want to run our city,” said Majd Hadid. “It might work for the president’s office, but it doesn’t work for the streets.”
Abdul-Karim, the analyst, says it was “urgently necessary” to elect new councils who had popular support to improve things like roads that affect the daily lives of citizens. He expects that such areas can now see “some good improvement.”
'Landmark end of Fatah'
Despite the Hamas boycott, Fatah by no means ran unopposed in this election, with renegade Fatah members, powerful clans, new women’s groups, and other blocs challenging the official Fatah party lists.
But some voters were still nonplussed about their choices in the municipal elections, which for districts such as Hebron marked the first such elections in more than three decades.
“I wish there was a third party. We have a major problem here in Palestine. It’s either/or – Fatah or Hamas,” says Bayan Shbib, an actress in the relatively upscale neighborhood of El-Bireh near Ramallah. “To me they have both proven a failure in responding to the people’s needs and aspirations…. They are not doing any good for the Palestinians.”
But many Palestinians say it’s not all the fault of their politicians; Israel, they point out, still controls many aspects of life in the territory despite granting greater autonomy to the PA in recent years.
“People understand they are living in a culture of prison; what is left to them is to improve life within the walls of the prison,” says PASSIA head Mr. Abdul-Hadi. The local elections, he says, "expose the balance of power within the prison.”
* The original headline for this article mistakenly indicated which party fared poorly in the elections.