HomeMiddle EastDespite international support, obstacles threaten Palestinian elections

Despite international support, obstacles threaten Palestinian elections

Feb 28, 2021

RAMALLAH, West Bank —  It remains unclear whether or not the Palestinian legislative elections, scheduled for May 22, will be held in the Palestinian territories in line with the decree President Mahmoud Abbas issued Jan. 15. Doubts about the success of the elections persist within large population segments.

At the operational level, the Central Elections Commission — an independent commission tasked with organizing and monitoring the elections that was set up by a decree issued by President Yasser Arafat in 2002 — is carrying on with the preparation phases for the electoral process. Phase 1, which consisted of the voter registration process, ended Feb. 17. The commission indicated in a press statement that the total number of voters registered reached nearly 2.622 million, or 93% of the 2.809 million eligible voters, according to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics. The three-day Phase 2, which includes claims and objections, begins March 1.

Electoral register tampering

A few hours before Phase 1 ended, reports about tampering with the electoral register — which includes the names and addresses of the registered voters — emerged, namely in the city of Hebron in the south of the West Bank. Unidentified people tampered with the electoral information of about 300 citizens by replacing the polling stations assigned to them with new ones located far from their areas of residence. These voters are Hamas supporters. The Central Elections Commission then dealt with the issue.

At a Feb. 18 press conference, Hanna Nasser, the chairman of the commission, affirmed that the register of voters had been tampered with. Some people had taken advantage of a commission service allowing citizens to change their polling places online and illegally changed the polling places for some citizens, which is an electoral crime, he added.

The commission filed a complaint before the prosecutor general to investigate the manipulation of the electoral register. The prosecution has yet to present the investigation’s results.

Palestinian factions and political parties, as well as human rights organizations, condemned the tampering of the electoral register, describing the move as an electoral crime that could be a harbinger that some parties will seek to rig and manipulate the elections at later stages.

On Feb. 22, the Central Elections Commission began distributing accreditation cards to local and international journalists and observers for the elections. It announced that the candidate registration process begins March 20 and ends March 31. 

The commission says it is on schedule to hold the elections, but some obstacles have surfaced, such as political arrests and media bickering. This comes despite a Feb. 20 presidential decree on public freedoms, based on what was agreed upon by the Palestinian factions in the recent Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo. That is in addition to a decree issued by Abbas on Feb. 21 allocating a minimum of seven seats for Christians in the next parliament.

The Islamic Jihad boycotts the election

The main Palestinian factions, including the Hamas and Fatah movements as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, officially said that they will run in the legislative elections. Other factions, such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian People’s Party and the Palestinian National Initiative are expected to announce their participation as well. However, the Islamic Jihad announced a boycott of the elections, in line with its previous positions, claiming they are being held under the umbrella of the Oslo accords, which the movement opposes. 

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how various factions will participate in the elections, as they are still considering whether to form coalitions or joint lists or run in separate lists. The shape of their participation will become known once their candidates are registered.  

Leftist forces and democratic groups are in the throes of forming a unified democratic list to run in the legislative elections.

Omar Shehadeh, an official with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Al-Monitor that his group begun consultations to build a leftist, democratic popular alliance to run in the elections, based on a clear and binding political program for its members.

He added, “The main item of the forthcoming alliance’s political program will be resistance, relying on a national liberation strategy on the basis of unity and partnership. That is in order to turn the Palestinian Authority into part of the resistance program.”

Shehadeh further said that the legislative elections must pave the way for the election of a new Palestinian National Council — which is the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He said the new council should draft a strategy and elect a new national leadership involving all parties, on the basis of resistance, partnership, unity and on shifting the authority’s policies of security coordination with Israel and abiding by the Oslo accords to instead bet on the people and their resistance and liberation program.

He said all political parties and forces whose actions on the ground are in line with this political program are called on to join the alliance’s democratic vision.

Bassam Salihi, secretary-general of the Palestinian People’s Party, spoke with the Wattan Media Network on Feb. 22 and called on left-wing popular and democratic forces to build a unified democratic and popular bloc, centered around the leftists, to run in the elections.

The electoral competition is especially intense between Fatah and Hamas — the two largest factions in the Palestinian arena — amid major challenges facing them both at present. There is a risk that multiple Fatah lists will join the elections independently.

To date, there are at least three potential electoral lists from Fatah that are expected to run in the elections. They consist of the official list that Fatah’s Central Committee and Abbas will announce; a list for the Democratic Reformist Current, led by dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan; and a third list that Fatah Central Committee member Nasser al-Kidwa intends to form. The latter is backed by jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is seeking  to run for president. Additional Fatah lists for young people or of the Old Guard are likely to be formed as well.

The dispute between Abbas and Kidwa has surfaced lately, after Kidwa boycotted the Central Committee’s meeting Feb. 12 and made harsh remarks at a political workshop Birzeit University organized Feb. 18. Kidwa said the Palestinian political system is unreformable and must necessarily be changed. He also expressed full support for Barghouti in the presidential elections and called on him to come to a definite decision on the legislative elections.

Meanwhile, Hamas is facing various challenges in forming an electoral list, particularly in the West Bank. This is where the Israeli army has recently arrested top Hamas cadres and leaders and made threats to other potential Hamas candidates in an attempt to derail them from running in the upcoming elections. These include former Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Aziz Dweik,  council member Nayef Rajoub and others.

A Hamas senior official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the movement expects Israel to step up arrests and threats against its top officials in the West Bank in the upcoming period, as well as against independent figures who are likely to ally themselves or run with the movement in the legislative elections so as to prevent the 2006 elections scenario from being repeated.

In a Feb. 22 statement, Hamas stressed that it is advancing on the path to the elections with the aim of achieving unity and rearranging Palestinian internal affairs in line with a national agenda that prioritizes the end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent and sovereign state.

Moving forward amid disputes

Despite the progress made in the lead-up to the elections, the challenges and threats that could hinder the vote persist, and have even become more prevalent in recent days.

The politically motivated arrests involving Hamas and Fatah are the most prominent challenges. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh demanded Feb. 22 that Hamas release 85 political detainees from its prisons, while denying that there are any political detainees in Palestinian Authority prisons. For its part, the Gaza Interior Ministry denied it held any political prisoners in the Gaza Strip, saying all prisoners in Gaza are either jailed or convicted in criminal or security cases.

Ahmad Helles, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, told the Voice of Palestine on Feb. 24 that Hamas insists on keeping political detainees locked up, which will undermine the electoral process.

On Feb. 25, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza said it released 45 Fatah members who were imprisoned in what it described as security cases “that had caused harm to the local factions and their armed wings.” However, Fatah spokesman in Gaza Iyad Nasr said Fatah had not received any information about such a release.

One more dispute has emerged between the two movements on the signing of an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Egypt to develop the Gaza Marine gas field. Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk demanded in a Feb. 23 tweet that the authority disclose details of the agreement, referring to corruption in previous cases, including the establishment of Gaza’s power station. Fatah Central Committee member Hussein al-Sheikh condemned Marzouk’s statement, saying that agreements are signed between states, and not factions. 

In light of the divide and disputes that have been ongoing between Fatah and Hamas for 16 years now, some Palestinians say they think the elections will not take place. Others, however, think that internal and external factors will lead to the elections.

Shehadeh said the elections are part of a battle that began in 2009 when the deadline to hold legislative and presidential elections was missed. Since then, there were constant attempts to avoid these elections, he said, adding that there are internal and external considerations to the elections at the present time, most notably is the Biden administration and the possibility of recommitting to the Oslo accords.

He said both Hamas and Fatah are having a hard time choosing beween granting the people their right to select their representatives and between continuing to rule alone. 

Ghassan al-Khatib, a former Palestinian planning minister and a former director of the government media office in Ramallah, told Al-Monitor that it remains unclear whether the Palestinian elections will be take place.

He said, “I believe that the odds of holding the elections do not exceed 50% due to the many obstacles.” He pointed out that tension continues to prevail over the Fatah-Hamas relations, as the two movements clash and exchange accusations at every occasion.

Khatib pointed to several obstacles that could prevent the elections, including whether Israel will facilitate the election or prevent it from taking place. He also said the agreements that were reached during the Cairo talks must be translated into presidential decrees on amending the electoral law. Also, he mentioned Fatah’s internal problems, with Barghouti and Kidwa considering running on separate lists.

Yet despite the disputes, Fatah and Hamas have achieved great progress in a number of files and continue to communicate in other dossiers, such as the formation of the electoral court made up of nine judges — four from Gaza, four from the West Bank and one from Jerusalem. 

In this context, a Fatah source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that contacts between the two parties are ongoing to discuss the names of the judges to this court, which will be tasked with looking into and issuing decisions on electoral files. When an agreement is reached, the Central Elections Commission will be informed, he said. 

On Feb. 25, Fatah’s Central Committee held a meeting to discuss the preparations for the legislative elections and the mechanisms to choose the candidates.

Also that day, Abu Marzouk announced during a seminar held in Ramallah that Hamas prefers to run in the elections under a joint list with Fatah. He said his movement made the proposal to Fatah and is awaiting its final response. 

European support for the elections

The Central Elections Commission, in both Ramallah and Gaza, has been welcoming representatives from several countries visiting the Palestinian territories to follow up on the preparations for the elections. These visits reflect growing international interest in the Palestinian elections.

On Feb. 24, Germany’s envoy to the Palestinian territories, Christian Clages, visited the commission’s headquarters in the Gaza Strip. On the same day, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Tor Wennesland, met with the commission’s head in Ramallah. This was preceded by a visit from the head of the European Union Police Mission for the Palestinian Territories, Nataliya Apostolova.

The European interest in the Palestinian elections began to appear with the EU pressure on the Palestinian Authority to hold the elections in order to renew political and democratic life in the Palestinian territories, in light of the ongoing EU financial support to the authority.  

Since the decree setting the dates for the elections was issued, the EU representative in Palestine, Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, held a series of long meetings with Palestinian government officials, faction leaders and officials in the Central Election Commission. He has expressed the EU’s readiness to monitor and support the success of the elections.

On Feb. 24, the Central Elections Committee sent an official request to the EU and the European Parliament to monitor the Palestinian elections. 

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