Judging by recent student council elections in the West Bank, Fatah can expect a narrow lead in the upcoming national elections, as long as voter turnout doesn’t increase, which would play in Hamas’s favor.
The first round of student council elections in the West Bank, which came to an end on May 7, was closely watched as an indication of broader national political trends. The Fatah Student Youth and Hamas Islamist Bloc groups are official extensions of their respective national parties, which provide financial and logistical support, and a number of the Palestinian factions have relied on student election results to stake out claims for their quotas in representative institutions. For example, in 1992 Hamas based its claim for 40 percent of the seats in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on student council election results. Elections in 2014 have been held in three leading institutions: Hebron University, Palestine Polytechnic University (PPU), and Birzeit University—and elections have been postponed at other academic institutions, including An-Najah University and Al-Quds University. Although the Fatah student movement emerged on top in all three, the margin of victory was narrow.
A lower voter turnout—a drop to 68 percent, compared to 85 percent in previous years—affected Hamas’s chances to see success in the student elections of 2014. At Hebron University, Fatah won 21 of 41 seats, followed by Hamas with 19. At PPU, also in the city of Hebron, Fatah won 17 seats and Hamas took 14, out of 31 total. At Birzeit, Fatah won 23 seats and Hamas took 20, out of a total of 51. Compared to previous years, the results show that the Hamas-affiliated Islamist bloc increased its vote in both Hebron and PPU, while holding its ground in Birzeit. The Islamist bloc managed to gain ground in the elections even without having a supportive infrastructure in place in the West Bank: after the 2007 elections, the Palestinian Authority’s security agencies cracked down on all organizations affiliated with Hamas and have constantly tried to disrupt the movement’s organizational structure and funding. Hamas members have been jailed, among them university student activists, including Birzeit University’s Islamist bloc coordinator Ahmed Neirat on May 17, and dorm raids are still taking place even after the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation was announced on April 23, 2014. According to the London-based Arab Organization for Human Rights, an estimated 13,271 political prisoners were arrested by the PA between 2007 and the end of 2012, and according to a 2013 reported by Hamas’s media bureau, of these 782 were supporters of Hamas, and a quarter of that were university students who have staged sit-ins against the PA’s detention of political prisoners.1
Within this political context, leaders of both Fatah and Hamas have been able to claim that the election results represented a victory for their side; each predict that the student council elections foreshadow similar results for the anticipated presidential, legislative, and National Council elections. Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud al-Aloul, commenting on the student elections, described them as a referendum on Fatah’s political approach under President Mahmoud Abbas and the numerical victory as “an indicator of Palestinian public opinion.” Meanwhile, a top Hamas official, Wasfi Kabha, argued that their strong showing in elections despite the student arrests shows that the movement will not be broken; rather, Hamas still holds sway in the Palestinian street, and “if not for the crackdowns by the occupation and the PA security agencies, Hamas would have won.”2
Other Palestinian parties are also trying to measure their overall popularity through student election results. One of those, Islamic Jihad, has been conspicuously absent from student elections since the beginning of the Fatah-Hamas split, when they stopped fielding candidates or endorsing other parties’ candidates due to logistical difficulties. Islamic Jihad remained absent during the 2014 elections, and with only a small presence in the West Bank, they were unlikely to take more than four percent of the student council seats in any case. On the national stage, and given its weakness in the West Bank, Islamic Jihad could be forced to form specific coalitions with Hamas or other groups in order to gain representation on the Palestinian National Council, and Hamas has repeatedly expressed its desire to build an electoral coalition with Islamic Jihad and field joint candidates in the National Council elections. Historically, Islamic Jihad has not shied away from forming coalitions to win student elections, as they did in 2003, when the Islamic Jihad-Hamas coalition took 25 of 51 seats at Birzeit University, compared to Fatah’s 20 seats.
As for left-wing parties, their appeal even at the university level is limited. This year, the leftist groups were unable to win any seats at PPU, managed to take only one of 41 seats at Hebron University, and held on to their seven of 51 seats at Birzeit University. Although they had waged a campaign focusing on the failure of both Fatah and Hamas to solve address social and economic issues and the deep divisions social and political they have created, leftists failed to see significant results in the student council elections. Their showing this year indicated that the Palestinian left wing’s decline in student council elections has continued unabated. Other independent movements, such as al-Hirak al-Shababi al-Mustaqil, which was launched in 2011 to advocate for Palestinian reconcilement among other issues, have failed to win enough votes for a single seat in either of the past two elections. Such groups have not succeeded in effectively establishing themselves within higher education institutions; they failed to form influential bodies or even get out clear messages during the student elections.
Ultimately, the student council election results of 2014 confirm the sharp division within Palestinian politics between Fatah and Hamas, who combined took more than 90 percent of the votes for the past two years. However, the most telling aspect of the elections is the increasing disenchantment with the political system. Mahmoud al-Qaddoumi, a youth activist in Ramallah, argues that some voters who mistrust both Hamas and Fatah stayed at home, despite the unity agreement officially ending the division two weeks earlier.3 Meanwhile, a Hamas member attributed the diminished turnout to student frustration with the electoral processes and the prospects for inducing change in the status quo, while also citing the security agencies’ intimidation of students and their families to discourage potential Hamas voters.4 A similarly low turnout is likely in the legislative, presidential, and National Council elections; this will detract from the elections’ legitimacy and might allow Fatah the chance to have a stronger showing.
Hassan Obaid is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany and the co-author of Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank: Research on their Demography and Determination of Return (London: Palestinian Return Centre, 2013).
This article was translated from Arabic.