Palestinian elections: Democracy for no one

There is much reason to believe the Palestinian elections scheduled for later this year will neither be free nor fair.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York, U.S., February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
According to a decree issued by President Mahmoud Abbas’s office, the Palestinian Authority (PA) will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31. [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

On January 15, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced that legislative and presidential elections will take place in the West Bank and Gaza later this year.

The decision came 15 years after Abbas was elected for what was meant to be a four-year term.

After many similar announcements that did not come to fruition, and in light of the PA’s increasing authoritarianism, the sincerity of this move is doubtful. Not only has upholding democratic principles never been a priority for the PA, but both the PA and Abbas’s current approval ratings are abysmal. This begs the question: Why announce elections now?

In the last four years, the Trump administration not only cut the PA’s funding but also completely sidelined Abbas. Since Joe Biden’s victory in the November 3 presidential election, Palestinian officials have been desperately grappling to get into the new administration’s good books. The decision to finally announce elections is clearly a part of this effort.

But impressing the Biden administration is likely not the only reason behind this move. Several domestic and international actors have also been pressuring the PA to hold elections. The international donor community, for example, has long been acutely aware that consistently propping up an authority and president who are over a decade past their elected mandate is not a good look.

For now, the legislative elections are scheduled to take place on May 22 and the presidential vote on July 31. There is, however, still a possibility that the PA will once again delay the election, putting the blame on either Hamas or Israel.

There is already one big obstacle in the way of the election: Jerusalem.

In the past, Abbas and other Palestinian officials stated that they would not hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza unless Palestinians in Jerusalem are also allowed to go to the polls.

It is unlikely that any Israeli government would permit Palestinian elections in Jerusalem, as doing so would amount to acknowledging a legitimate Palestinian presence in the city, and therefore challenge the Israeli claim of sovereignty over the entire metropolis.

Moreover, the Israeli regime may even try to prevent Palestinian Jerusalemites from taking part in the elections by threatening to revoke their residence permits if they do so.

But even if elections do go ahead as planned, they will likely be neither free nor fair.

Public support for Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza is waning. They have no popular mandate and are maintaining their grip over these territories through authoritarianism and corruption.

Indeed, political opposition has long been repressed in both the West Bank and Gaza. Authorities regularly arrest journalists and activists who question their actions or reveal information that make them appear oppressive, corrupt or inept. The Israeli regime has also played a big role in this political oppression by incarcerating thousands of Palestinians for “political” crimes and outlawing most Palestinian political activity under its illegal military law. The result has been the cementing of a one-party system in both territories and depoliticisation of the Palestinian society.

It is thus entirely likely that the two parties will come to an agreement to fix the elections in a way that would allow them to maintain dominant positions in the territories they currently rule over. Holding elections, given the current status quo, would therefore be antithetical to democracy.

Furthermore, elections are merely technical procedures and are in no way interchangeable with democracy. They regularly take place not only in democracies but also in countries where democratic characteristics are lacking or completely absent.

Palestine, at the moment, is in the latter category. Therefore, elections would achieve little more than propping up a status quo that does not allow for democratic space and a system that does not seek to produce a democratic and representative leadership.

Meanwhile, just like Hamas and Fatah, international donors are also not really interested in seeing Palestinians democratically elect their leaders. They only care about having a Palestinian leadership that will not push back against their agendas. This was demonstrated par excellence in the last Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006 when Hamas won in a landslide. The international community rejected the results of that election and subsequently imposed sanctions on the PA and withheld aid – merely because Palestinians dared to elect a leadership that they deemed inappropriate.

Israel on its part has repeatedly demonstrated that it will crush all Palestinian expressions of democracy that challenge its settler-colonial regime and will only allow a subordinate Palestinian leadership.

The current higher echelons of the Palestinian political elite are also not interested in a democratic process that will challenge their position and privilege. It is thus clear that the recently scheduled Palestinian elections are nothing but political theatrics to provide cover for the fact that among the main actors there is no interest in promoting a representative and accountable Palestinian leadership and a democratic Palestinian society.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.