For Palestinians, sudden wave of election talk rekindles hope

Why We Wrote This

It’s easy to list the obstacles to progress in the Middle East. Local residents regard promises with skepticism. Still, for a new generation of Palestinians, talk of presidential and parliamentary elections is tantalizing.

Mussa Qawasma/AP
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends a Christmas midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 25, 2019. The church, built over the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, hosted Palestinian dignitaries and pilgrims from around the world.

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The four-year terms of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, elected in 2005, and the Palestinian parliament have long expired. A generation of young Palestinians have not had the chance to cast a vote for national office.

There are many reasons for their frustration, not least of which is the infighting between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and its rival Hamas. Repeated efforts at compromise have failed despite overwhelming public sentiment on behalf of reconciliation. But a steady stream of pronouncements has put the topic of elections back in the national dialogue, and the two rivals have agreed in principle to hold a long-awaited election as a step toward mending their rift.

Recent polls show an uptick in optimism among Palestinians that they may finally go to the polls. To be sure, obstacles remain. On the streets of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, talk of elections occasionally elicits cynical laughter.

“We need elections as soon as possible,” says Mustafa Barghouti, who ran for president against Mr. Abbas in 2005. “People have been deprived of their right to elections for more than 10 years, and that’s more than anyone can tolerate.”

For an entire generation of Palestinians, participating in national elections is something never before experienced. Many barely recall the last time a parliamentary vote was held, 14 years ago.

But with a steady stream of pronouncements about elections back in the national dialogue, there’s an uptick in optimism among Palestinians that they may finally go back to the polls to elect a legislature and a president.

And after years of infighting and acrimony between President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas that has paralyzed domestic Palestinian politics, the two bitter rivals have agreed in principle to hold a long-awaited election as a step toward mending the rift.

“Yes, I’m excited. I’m 25, and I’ve never voted before. I’m waiting to see who’s going to be the next president and who I’m going to vote for,” says Anas Tzahboub, a soccer coach. “It’s important for Palestinians to choose their leader.” 

To be sure, formidable obstacles remain that may prevent a vote from ever getting off the ground. For one, despite Mr. Abbas’ vow at the United Nations General Assembly in September to issue a decree for elections, he has yet to do so – stoking concern he might not follow through for fear Fatah might lose at the ballot box.  

Then there’s Israel, which has yet to say whether it will allow Palestinians under its control in contested East Jerusalem to participate. Mr. Abbas insisted Sunday that including Jerusalemites in the voting is essential for the elections to take place. 

Finally, there’s the feud between Fatah and Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007 from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.

For more than a decade, the leading Palestinian parties have failed at repeated efforts at compromise – preferring divided rule despite overwhelming public sentiment on behalf of reconciliation. The enduring bad blood could play a role in snagging the vote over unresolved procedural details of how the elections will be held. 

“There is a lot of frustration that the Palestinian division was the reason for the stalemate, and the inability of the Palestinians to hold parliamentary and presidential elections,’’ says Mkaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in the Gaza Strip.

“Elections were supposed to be the outcome of reconciliation,” he says. “But after repeated failures, the president said we should do it the other way around. Elections will be the key, the first step to Palestinian reconciliation.”

Public sentiment

A December public opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research highlighted ambivalence among the Palestinian public about the prospect for a successful vote.

On the one hand, 52% of Palestinians said they expect elections to be held soon, up from 38% three months earlier. Some 68% said they would participate.

On the other hand, only 42% said they believe the elections would be free and fair. And about two-thirds of those polled said they doubted that Fatah or Hamas would cede power if defeated.

Years of mothballed domestic politics, stalemated peace talks with Israel, and violent upheaval around the wider Middle East have deflated Palestinian expectations for progress. In shops and on the streets in central Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, the suggestion of elections – or intikhab – occasionally evokes cynical laughter.

Some said reaching a peace deal with Israel is more important.

Willah Abdel Wahab, a 30-year-old lawyer from Ramallah, says that when elections are finally called, she’ll carefully consider her choice for a party, though she prefers one that isn’t Fatah or Hamas. Still, she is deeply skeptical that a vote would substantially change Palestinian politics – or that one will be called at all.

“Elected officials haven’t done anything,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to change anything. Because it’s the same people. Even if the president is going to change it will be the same people.”

Indeed, elections have been few and far between since the Palestinians got autonomous rule in 1994 following the 1993 signing of the first Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
A poster depicting the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is seen on the 15th anniversary of his death, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Nov. 11, 2019.

There have been two presidential elections: Yasser Arafat, the longtime PLO leader, was elected with 88% of the vote in 1996; and in 2005, Mr. Abbas received 63%. The 2006 parliamentary election counted as the one contest between Hamas and Fatah – a victory for Hamas. The four-year terms of Mr. Abbas and the parliament have long since expired, and last year the president said he would dissolve the legislature.

“We need elections as soon as possible. People have been deprived of their right to elections for more than 10 years, and that’s more than anyone can tolerate,” says Mustafa Barghouti, who ran for president against Mr. Abbas in 2005. “We have a whole younger generation – the vast majority of the voters – who have never had the chance to vote.”

Palestinians have long since grown weary of Mr. Abbas. Nearly two-thirds believe he should resign. At the same time, frustration has grown in Gaza with Hamas’ rule and the economic crisis caused by Israel’s blockade of the territory.

“If elections were to take place, everyone would be shocked by the results. Neither Hamas nor Fatah would win,” says Nashat Aqtash, who advised the pro-Hamas Reform and Change party in the West Bank in 2006. “If there’s a third party that was well organized, it could win.”

Why has Mr. Abbas renewed the election push after so many years?

Observers have offered several explanations. One is that the Palestinian Authority has come under pressure from European donor countries to hold a vote. Another theory is that the goal of elections will dominate the agenda because of its popularity, and distract from criticism of the PA. A third explanation holds that Mr. Abbas is seeking to pressure Hamas, which boycotted a recent round of municipal elections.

“His goal is not for better representation through elections, but rather his goal is to try to mitigate the competition from Hamas. I think he was surprised Hamas accepted,” says Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American businessman and political analyst.

An Israeli veto?

The Palestinian Authority formally notified Israel this month that it planned to hold the election in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians demand as their future capital in any peace deal with Israel. Though the city’s 341,000 Arab residents have participated in previous Palestinian elections – as required by the peace accords – Israel’s right-wing government has not given an answer. The push for Palestinian elections comes as their Israeli neighbors have been mired in a political crisis that has forced three general elections in less than 12 months.     

On Dec. 29, Mr. Abbas told a meeting of the Fatah party that there would be no vote without participation of Palestinians who live “in the heart” of the city. But many Palestinians believe that elections are too important to be held up over the dispute over Jerusalem.   

“I don’t agree with placing a veto in Israel’s hands by saying, ‘If Israel doesn’t allow elections in Jerusalem, elections won’t happen,’” says Mr. Bahour. “I think that that’s placing a strategic need in the hands of an entity that doesn’t have any interest in moving Palestinian internal politics forward.”

It’s still far from assured, however, whether Hamas and Fatah are ready to agree on the details holding one unified election. Over the years of estrangement, Mr. Abbas’ security forces have jailed Islamists in the West Bank, and Hamas has done the same with opponents in Gaza.

Once Mr. Abbas issues a decree, the two parties must reach an accord about what force will be responsible for securing the vote, and which court will preside over legal challenges. There’s also a rule that requires candidates to swear allegiance to the Palestine Liberation Organization in writing – which is problematic for Hamas members who are ideologically opposed to the PLO’s peace deal with Israel.

The stymied politics from all sides have “doused water on the fire” for change among Palestinians, says Murad Odeh, a 42-year old shopkeeper with a jewelry store on Ramallah’s Al-Manara Square. Palestinian leaders, like others in Israel and countries elsewhere, suffer from an addiction to power, he says.    

“The bigger problem is that someone when gets in the chair, they don’t want to leave,” he says. “I hope it’s going to change.”

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