Only seven hours remained until the deadline to submit electoral lists to the Central Elections Commission on June 10 when the Palestinian Authority (PA) called off the local council elections scheduled to take place in July. The PA justified its abrupt decision by claiming that such elections could derail a possible reconciliation with the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.  It is clear, however, that the continuing travails of beleaguered Fatah movement were behind the decision.

The secular nationalist Fatah movement is still being torn apart from within, as has been evident since 2006, even after holding a long-anticipated party congress in August 2009 that was to have resolved its internal divisions.  Furthermore, Fatah has been unable to distinguish itself from the PA, which is struggling to address its vanishing claim to legitimacy in the face of a deadlocked negotiating process  between the PLO and Israel, the expiration of President Mahmoud Abbas’s constitutional term in January 2010, and a number of financial and ethical scandals surrounding PA officials.  

For this reason, Fatah—as well as the PA—has been trying to walk a thin line between the need to restore its damaged status and a fear of further destabilizing its internal situation.  Local elections whose outcome was obvious in advance were seen as a surefire way to do this, even if it meant coercing the competition to clear the field for Fatah candidates.  For instance, in the village of Beit Aksa northwest of Jerusalem, journalists reported that Palestinian security forces detained the independent heading the competing slate for questioning, a move that caused the other candidates on the slate to withdraw from the elections out of fear that they would be subjected to the same treatment.

Things did not go the way Fatah had planned, however, for two reasons.  First, Fatah failed to create a broad national coalition under its leadership to enter the elections, after the Popular Front, the Palestinian National Initiative, and the People’s Party all rejected the offer in hopes of capturing the anti-PA protest vote.  Second, Fatah was unable to form united slates in all of the West Bank’s municipalities as a result of many members’ insistence that they would run as independents or on other slates should they not be on the Fatah slate. Perhaps the most obvious example is what happened in Nablus, one of the largest cities in the West Bank.  Ghassan al-Shaka’a, a Fatah leader and representative of a powerful local clan, insisted on nominating himself as a candidate for mayor even though there was already an official Fatah candidate, Amin Maqboul.

With its internal divisions and lack of party discipline laid bare, Fatah was left with two choices.  It could either cancel the elections (nominally “postponing” them) or else repeat the experience of the 2006 legislative elections, when it was soundly defeated after fielding several Fatah candidates against a single Hamas candidate, which effectively split the pro-Fatah vote.

Public indifference in the West Bank towards local elections—54 percent voiced support for holding the elections, and 41 percent opposed holding them, according to a March 2010 poll—also suggested that low participation rates might discredit not only the electoral process, but also Fatah itself as the largest Palestinian faction.  Even with a Fatah victory assured in Hamas’s absence, observers expected that no more than 30 percent of eligible voters would cast their ballots for Fatah.  Meanwhile, the Hamas-led government in Gaza announced in October 2009 that it would not hold local elections in the area it controls, citing a lack of a national consensus on the topic and vowing to stop anyone preparing to hold them—a reference to the Central Elections Commission, which Hamas has forbidden from working in Gaza.

Hamas’s opposition to local elections is rooted in the power struggle with Fatah.  Hamas leaders are fully aware that Fatah sorely needs the local elections, and want to deny it any escape from its current predicament.  The West Bank branch of Hamas, meanwhile, has tried to appear more moderate in order to minimize repression by the PA.  It has justified its refusal to participate in local elections at present by arguing that the basic prerequisites for free and fair elections reflecting the voters’ will, such as freedom of speech, the right to peaceful assembly, and freedom of association, are lacking, as is a guarantee of free political activity for all parties.  According to a Hamas official, the PA arrested more than 250 people believed to be affiliated with Hamas during May 2010, while it called in another 1,000 for questioning.  The same official reported that the investigators initially were asking detainees about whether Hamas was going to take part in the local elections, and who its candidates were.  After Hamas announced on May 24 that it would boycott the elections, the questions changed to focus on whether or not Hamas would support independent candidates, and if so whom.  Hamas has thus decided that not only will it boycott West Bank local elections, but it also will not support any independent candidates, in order to do what it can to avoid conferring the legitimacy Fatah seeks.

The student council elections at Birzeit University in the West Bank are widely regarded as a bellwether of the larger Palestinian political scene.  This year, the Islamist bloc (an alliance between Hamas and Islamic Jihad) boycotted the March 31 elections to protest more than 70 of their members being imprisoned by the PA, a claim confirmed by independent observers.  Voter turnout dropped to 57 percent, compared to 84 percent last year, when Islamists participated.  In addition, some 12 percent of student voters cast void or blank ballots. The Fatah youth bloc won 31 seats in the 2010 student council elections, a leftist coalition took another 16 seats, and the Palestinian National Initiative won 3 seats, whereas in 2009 Fatah youth won 24 seats, the Islamist bloc 22 seats, the Popular Front 4 seats, and the People’s Party 1 seat.  It is significant that, even though Fatah won more seats in 2010, the actual number of votes for Fatah dropped by 13 percent, even with the boycott by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Finally, the postponement of the local elections reflects not only the deteriorating Palestinian political situation but also suggests that it will be difficult if not impossible to hold any other legislative or presidential elections in the foreseeable future.  Thus the Palestinian political system is entering into an extended period of stagnation characterized by authoritarian, police state rule, whether in the West Bank or Gaza.       

Omran Risheq is a Palestinian writer. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.