Multimedia Journalist specializing in Israeli/Palestinian affairs
Dana El Kurd
Doha Institute for Graduate Studies
Palestinian Central Elections Commission
Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
Arab Center Washington DC
On April 27, 2021, Arab Center Washington DC and the Institute for Palestine Studies cosponsored a virtual panel discussion titled “The Challenges of Holding Palestinian Elections under Occupation.” Speakers were Hanna Nasir, Chairman of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission and former President of Birzeit University; Khalil Shikaki, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research; Dana El Kurd, Assistant Professor, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, and Researcher, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies; and Dalia Hatuqa, a multimedia journalist specializing in Israeli/Palestinian affairs. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan served as moderator.
Hanna Nasir said that despite the talk of canceling elections, the Central Elections Commission (CEC) continues to work in a “business as usual” mode. He said that for the last 15 years, “democracy has been totally grounded in Palestine” and that is why the current election process is extremely important. He asserted that it would help to revive democracy and to end the festering conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Nasir noted that over 93 percent of eligible Palestinian voters have registered to vote; of them, at least one million will not have voted before since there have been no elections since 2006. There are 36 lists that have been formed, he continued, some that have split from Fatah.
Although there is high respect for the CEC, many challenges remain, Nasir said, including the Palestinians’ need to know that results of the elections will be respected by the various parties. The bigger problem, he explained, is that the international community supports elections, yet sometimes they do not accept their results. As for the obstacles placed by Israel before Jerusalem voters, he said that this is a question of sovereignty that cannot have a technical solution. Nasir spoke of the CEC’s special measures in place for Jerusalem voters, such as allowing them to cast ballots without registration and to do so in the suburbs of the city. He affirmed that even if Israel prohibits the elections in Jerusalem, the Palestinians should hold them anyway and not let the Israelis dictate their fate. If Abbas calls them off, Nasir maintained, then it would behoove him to announce something equally momentous such as pushing forward on a unity government. Regarding the restructuring of the PLO, Nasir said that there is no clear path to reforms as occupation has stifled the spirit of the people. He stated that if the elections are canceled, there may not be enough of an uproar to make meaningful change.
Khalil Shikaki said that in March, the Palestinians’ expectations that elections will take place stood at more than 60 percent; now, however, the numbers are probably about half that. He voiced particular concern about youth participation, saying that the segment of those aged 18-29 also had these high expectations. Shikaki explained that data from his survey research polls indicate that most Palestinians believe that elections will not be fair and free for a number of reasons: 1) the majority think the Palestinian Authority is not a democratic institution; 2) they believe that because of the split between the West Bank and Gaza, the opposition parties will not be able to campaign in the two areas; 3) only about half of the public trusts the police in Gaza and the West Bank to treat the process with integrity or neutrality; 4) majorities believe that the lack of democracy will translate into a rejection of electoral outcomes—70 percent say that if Hamas wins the election, Fatah will reject the outcome, and 60 percent maintain that if Fatah wins, Hamas will reject the outcome; 5) they think that Israel will be destructive and will continue to try to arrest candidates (and elected parliamentarians); 6) only half of the public has confidence that the election commission will be able to manage the process—they believe that in Gaza, Hamas will dictate its will to the commission, and likewise with Fatah in the West Bank—and that the CEC has little capacity to resist the pressure.
Young people have abandoned Hamas, Shikaki continued, as a result of its failure for over 15 years to retain support from Palestinian youth. Some are more interested in Fatah figures like Marwan Barghouti, but there is very little interest in voting for Mahmoud Abbas. As for women, he said, they have tended to vote for Hamas over Fatah based on their religious and conservative values, and he expects this to hold true during this election as well. Shikaki also explained that Fatah is perceived as better in terms of addressing priorities, especially those relating to the economy and ending the siege and blockade of Gaza. He said that there is significant public concern that Hamas will make things worse; at the same time, the public still believes Fatah and PA are corrupt, so combatting corruption is an important issue as well. The fundamental priority, he asserted, is the unification of the West Bank and Gaza, which is significant for voting behavior, and Fatah is expected to do better than Hamas on this issue. In general, he concluded that neither camp will garner a majority in the elections, and Fatah’s potential coalitions with third parties could help it win.
Dana El Kurd stated that the focus on elections will not address the long-term problems that Palestinians face. Putting exogenous factors aside, she analyzed the internal issues that are de-mobilizing the Palestinian movement and based her analysis on Christian Davenport’s book, How Social Movements Die. These include burnout, polarization or factionalization (as a result of internal divisions), loss of commitment, loss of membership, and the rigidity of the institution. She discussed how the framework applies to the Palestinian movement, arguing that these factors will be triggered—especially among Palestinian youth—if the elections actually move forward because 1) there is no guarantee of international support or domestic legitimacy, and 2) the elections will be conducted in the context of increased repression and an entrenched status quo supported by both Hamas and Fatah. She said, “a focus on elections can distract from the real work that needs to be done to rejuvenate effective mobilization around the Palestinian cause internally.”
El Kurd cited the polling results of the Arab Opinion Index of 2019, noting that only 23 percent of the Palestinian public has trust in political parties, with 43 percent saying that they would not participate in elections mainly because “elections are useless.” The decades-long stagnating political situation has exacerbated apathy and alienation, she continued, especially in the younger generations, potentially breeding a sense of fatalism and desperation and possibly a proclivity toward armed resistance. She reiterated the importance of challenging the status quo and finding alternatives (an example is the youth movement Jeel Al Tajdeed) and supporting initiatives to revitalize the PLO and PA. In addition, these movements must be as inclusive as possible, she said, with support from across geographic boundaries, including inside the Green Line. Alternatives have not emerged because they have not been allowed to emerge, she asserted. El Kurd argued that the perpetuation of the status quo will be catastrophic on a number of levels, most importantly to internal Palestinian politics.
Dalia Hatuqa stated that the Palestinian Authority has been paving the way for canceling elections for some time, that it “was never serious about democratic and free elections in the first place.” She said that Abbas’s use of the Jerusalem issue as a pretext to cancel the elections has to do with Fatah’s internal mess and not with Hamas; indeed, Abbas “was okay with elections as long as he was able to control the result,” she said. As for the Palestinians, they are used to the cancellation of elections; however, the hype this time around—which is making them feel that they have come so close to have a say in their future—has changed the dynamic and more is at stake. In fact, she explained, Nasser al-Qudwa’s list and 14 other lists have sent a letter to Abbas saying that they will not accept a cancellation decision by him and insist that elections take place. She said there will likely be demonstrations if the elections are not held.
As for the Americans, she said that they have not been forthcoming regarding support for free and fair elections, overtly expressing their distaste for a Hamas win. For its part, Israel has been “eerily silent” about allowing elections in East Jerusalem, and it has arrested candidates there, nonetheless. Hatuqa argued that it was easy to see from the beginning that elections would not take place, particularly because of internal Palestinian political rifts. Fatah and Hamas have not agreed on a security apparatus to ensure free and fair elections in the respective areas they control, neither of them having good track records in this respect. In addition, Abbas warned early on that the pandemic may threaten the elections, and Islamic Jihad had announced that they would boycott elections. Hatuqa said that if the elections do not in fact take place, the hope is that this will reignite a fervor to coalesce around a broad-based mobilization, especially with the involvement of youth who feel disenfranchised, one that is linked across the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
* Photo credit: WAFA