Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Palestinians living in rural areas voted in the first phase of municipal elections in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Voting on Saturday took place in 154 villages and local councils located in the West Bank, and polling stations closed at 7pm local time (21:00 GMT). No ballots, however, were cast, in more than 220 other councils, either because only one list is competing or no lists have been submitted.
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Larger constituencies, including towns and cities in the West Bank with about 70 percent of total voters, will go to polls in the second phase, scheduled to be held on March 26 next year.
Political parties and civil society groups have criticised the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA) for splitting the local elections, which followed another heavily criticised decision to postpone long-awaited parliamentary and presidential elections.
Hamas announced a boycott of Saturday’s local elections over the moves, insisting that polls at the national level should be held.
The political movement has been the de facto ruler in the besieged Gaza Strip since 2007 after it defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections. Fatah was driven out of the Strip as it attempted a preemptive coup which resulted in several weeks of violent fighting. The two parties have ruled the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively ever since.
Municipal elections were previously held in 2012 and 2017 in the West Bank, but not in the Gaza Strip, as Hamas boycotted the elections over divisions between the two parties.
Aref Jaffal, director of the Palestine-based Arab World Democracy and Electoral Monitor (Al-Marsad), said the PA “diluted the importance and power” of this year’s local elections by holding them in two phases – a move he branded “definitely political” that showcased a lack of appetite for real reforms and would result in the entrenchment of Fatah’s divisions with Hamas.
‘Threat to democracy’
Local councils are responsible for basic services but do not pass legislation or deal with national politics.
The electoral system for local bodies operates on the model of proportional representation based on the council’s size. Nominations are carried out through closed electoral lists in which the names of the candidates do not appear on the ballot paper.
While most lists are assembled along party lines, independent ones can also run.
Jaffal said most small councils nominate only one party-based list, which is then automatically elected – also known as winning by acclamation.
While the 154 localities voting on Saturday have put forward more than one list, there will be no elections in at least 162 other local bodies in where only one list – mostly of Fatah – was nominated, and in some 60 other localities where no lists were put forward.
“The small councils were chosen in the first phase because they are controlled by families, and the alliance between these families and the Fatah party leads to them winning the majority of votes,” Jaffal told Al Jazeera.
In light of the absence of multiple parties competing, Jaffal said the larger, more influential families in villages decide who will be on the list. “This will reflect on any general elections, where the stronger families will try to interfere in the electoral system, and this represents a threat to democracy,” he added.
Fatah spokesman Mounir al-Jaghoub, however, rejected allegations his party was trying to control the elections and defended the decision to hold them in two phases.
“The reason behind postponing the larger municipalities is to allow time for talks with Hamas with regards to holding elections in the municipalities of the Gaza Strip during the second phase of the local elections in March 2022,” al-Jaghoub told Al Jazeera.
“These elections are general, and anyone can run. No one has been prevented from running,” he said, citing Qabalan village in Nablus, where “Hamas is taking part in the municipal elections through one of its candidates who had previously run in the Legislative Council elections”.
‘We need change’
A pre-election survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) showed that Fatah enjoys more support in rural areas than Hamas, with 41 percent saying they would vote for the former in the first phase.
The report found that while Fatah has the “ability to effectively compete in the upcoming first phase of the local elections”, the party “remains unable to win in the second phase of the local elections, which will take place mostly in cities and big towns”.
Fakhr al-Rantisi, a 36-year-old Palestinian from the village of Rantis near Ramallah, said he would not vote as only one electoral list – Fatah – was put forward for his village, by default making it the prospective winner.
The father of three, who works for a not-for-profit organisation, told Al Jazeera that while this “does not allow competent people to nominate themselves without being part of an electoral list”, he could also see some advantages.
“Whenever more than one party is competing in our village, the Hamas movement usually wins, resulting in donor countries being unwilling to deal with the elected local council, in addition to official bodies refusing to support it,” said al-Rantisi, referring to Western countries that have classified Hamas as a “terror group”, citing its armed wing.
“It seems this issue was understood, so it was agreed that Fatah would head the unified list to overcome this barrier. However, this agreement nullifies the rights of citizens who are unrepresented in the unified list to vote, and it weakens the accountability of the elected council later.”
Meanwhile, Rajaa Nasser, a 37-year-old from Abu Qash, a village near Ramallah, said he would vote in the hope that it would help find permanent solutions to endemic day-to-day problems in his area, including infrastructure.
“I will vote for the candidates whom I think will make a real change,” Nasser told Al Jazeera. “I hope that whoever wins will return our village to its normal state. We need change. We have lived through enough problems,” he said.
“There are lists which have candidates with better competencies than others. There are also candidates which have explained what they will do to improve the situation in our village, while others have not presented any clear programme.”
General elections delay
In April, PA President Mahmoud Abbas postponed the first parliamentary and presidential elections in 15 years that were scheduled for May, citing Israel’s ban on allowing elections to be held in occupied East Jerusalem.
Critics condemned Abbas’s decision as a cover-up for the likely prospect his party, Fatah, would not secure a majority, with Hamas calling it a “coup against national partnership and conciliation”.
Other parties, including the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), strongly rejected the postponement, saying it “halts the reconciliation process” and “puts a question mark on the seriousness of the dominant party about ending the division and restoring national unity”.
Executive Director of the PA’s Central Elections Commission, Hisham Kuhail, told Al Jazeera the committee did not discuss the elections with Hamas this year as “that is a decision made at the political level”.
“Hamas opposed delaying the general elections and prioritised them. This time, the commission told the political leadership that we will not hold any negotiations because the law is clear, and because demands between the two parties are political and are outside the commission’s powers,” he said.
Hamas and Fatah had agreed to hold elections in 2016, but they were then cancelled in the Gaza Strip by the PA’s High Court of Justice, citing the lack of control by the Palestinian judiciary and police over the territory.