Did Abbas abuse his powers in restricting election to West Bank?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose elected mandate ended in 2009, has passed more than 70 decisions under controversial emergency law.

Issam Rimawi APA images

For the first time since 2005, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission recently gave the green light for local elections. As a result, some voters went to the polls on 20 October to decide who should sit on 245 village councils, 98 municipal councils and 10 local councils — solely in the occupied West Bank. One of the major political parties, Hamas, boycotted the whole event.

The election process was marred by a lack of real competition, with only half of the 500,000 registered Palestinians (out of the West Bank population of two million) voting. In 181 localities only one electoral list was submitted, meaning that they were automatically voted in.

The limited competition that did occur was between the Fatah party, leftist parties and former Fatah members who formed their own independent electoral list after breaking away from the main party due to internal problems. The results show that the main party, Fatah, backed by de facto Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, only won two-fifths of of the total 1,051 seats. “Independent” candidates — often former Fatah party members — won in most of the major West Bank cities such as Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem, with the leftist parties winning 20 percent of the seats.

Cementing division

The local elections from the outset were used as a political card, first to end the political division between Palestinians. Later it became more apparent that advancing the interests of particular political parties against others had become the priority. The elections were supposed to be held in 2010 but have been postponed twice due to the Fatah party’s inability to form and agree on the lists of candidates that would represent them in each area.

The fact that the Gaza Strip was excluded from the local elections raises serious questions and fears regarding whether this will further entrench the state of division between the two governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas, respectively.

Dr. Mariam Saleh is a member of the suspended Palestinian Legislative Council and a former minister of women’s affairs in the short-lived Hamas-led government elected back in 2006. The government was suspended following economic sanctions by Israel, the US and the European Union, all of whom refused to recognize that government as Hamas did not recognize Israel’s “right to exist.” Israel rounded up and arrested 26 members of the PLC. Seven years later, 13 of these elected politicians remain behind bars.

“Of course these local elections cement division,” Saleh said. “After the reconciliation talks and signings that took place in Cairo in May 2011 between the two governments, it was agreed that once a new unified government was formed then the local elections would occur, in a mutually inclusive and transparent manner.”

No legitimacy

Instead, the Palestinian Authority cabinet, which is part of appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s office, issued a decree on 10 July for local elections to take place in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. As a result of the political situation and the division between the governments in Gaza and the West Bank, the same ministry issued another decree at the end of July to confirm the local elections would take place in the West Bank only.

According to Dr. Issam Abdeen, a legal researcher for the human rights organization Al-Haq as well as its accredited supervisor on the Central Elections Commission, the law regarding local elections had to be altered in order to allow the elections to proceed only in the West Bank.

“When the law is altered it should be for the benefit of all, and not in this case for local elections to take place only in the West Bank,” Abdeen stressed. “The law does not change for specific events. The nature of the legal base is established to meet the social interests of the society, not specific interests.”

Every adult has a right to participate in any election, whether local, executive, or legislative. Abdeen placed heavy emphasis on the fact that in order for a truly interactive electoral process to go ahead with a high level of voter turnout, it must be transparent.

“The atmosphere surrounding any kind of elections, from local to legislative to presidential, must be primarily healthy,” Dr. Abdeen said, “and not tainted by any kind of pressures from the executive body or security forces. It should express what the citizens want.”

An election should be run without any internal or outside interference, he added, and the Central Elections Commission should have the freedom to work either in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Elections that exclude certain political parties or factions undermine serious competition as well as the willingness of the citizen to participate in them. Compliance and agreement in renewing all of the current ruling powers on all levels, from the PA presidency to the local councils, should be a staple element.

Under Article 47 of the Basic Law — the closest thing to a written constitution in the West Bank and Gaza — power to introduce and amend laws rests primarily with the Palestinian Legislative Council. The PA’s president has limited exceptional powers to legislate in the absence of parliament, under Article 43 of the Basic Law. This article states that the president can change legislation or introduce exceptional measures only when time-sensitive matters that cannot be postponed arise. Such measures are called “decisions by law.”

“Unfortunately,” Abdeen explained, “in the absence of the Palestinian parliament, these exceptional measures have been used not on an emergency basis but on a widespread level. Due to the division and the absence of the Legislative Council, the president has since 2007 until now issued 70 ‘decisions by law.’ This accounts for more than two-thirds of all laws issued by the Legislative Council over a time period of ten years.”

Really urgent?

On 14 May the decision by law regarding local elections was signed, and on 10 July the PA government adopted the law.

“The question to ask is: was it really an urgent emergency to alter the law?” Abdeen said. “Article 43 clearly states that [decisions by law should be made] only in extreme, pressing matters and since the local elections were postponed twice since 2010 — for three years now — it is clearly not a pressing issue.”

There’s a difference between a normal law and a “decision by law.” A normal law passes through the competent authority in the legislature, is discussed in public, goes through the required legal processing and is voted upon article by article before being published and disseminated. A decision by law needs to be only signed by the president of the PA, giving room for abuses of executive power.

“These elections do not have legitimacy,” Saleh said firmly. “How can we vote, as members of opposition parties and factions of Fatah, without risking arrest? I’m not talking about the Israeli occupation, but of the PA security forces that pursue and jail Hamas affiliates and supporters.”

The main violation that the Central Elections Commission has noticed and publicized is the arrest of approximately 120 Palestinians by the PA security forces throughout the West Bank based on their political affiliations or beliefs, who were interrogated about who they would vote for. This amounted to a grave violation of civil liberties.

Will the fruits of the local elections usher in a more dangerous proposition — that of the West Bank conducting its own legislative or presidential elections? The occupied West Bank and Gaza are not contiguous, and the state of division has reached what Abdeen called a “political absurdity that is rooted in maintaining the division, each territory on its own,” playing into the classic colonizer tactic of divide and rule.

Linah Alsaafin is a graduate of Birzeit University and a writer based in Ramallah, West Bank.