Whichever way you turn it, the municipal elections for the occupied West Bank and Gaza that were slated for October would effectively have been a referendum on the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and, to a much lesser extent, Hamas.
Perhaps that’s why they were canceled.
Certainly, that was the impression given by the rival parties, Fatah and Hamas, once the Palestinian high court in Ramallah ruled the elections could not go ahead after “procedural hurdles” in Gaza and with Israel preventing voting in East Jerusalem.
Fatah’s Usama al-Qawasmi accused Hamas of deliberately sabotaging the vote with “private courts” to prevent Fatah candidates from standing in Gaza. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas representative, denounced a “politically motivated” court decision designed “to rescue Fatah.”
Of course, the high court would fiercely protest its independence and reject the notion that political pressure had a bearing on the decision. Yet the court cannot seriously be viewed as apolitical, when its judges are appointed by the Palestinian Authority president, a post Abbas has held since 2005.
Moreover, the court’s reasoning that elections could not proceed if they were not held in East Jerusalem did not prevent municipal elections from going ahead in 2012.
At least some political considerations therefore likely swayed judgment.
So what happened?
The elections had been announced in June and, initially, looked set to be a rerun of the 2012 municipal elections which Hamas boycotted. The 2012 vote was confined to the West Bank – excluding East Jerusalem.
But in July, Hamas announced that this time it would indeed participate. It was clear from the moment that Hamas decided to take part that these elections would be about much more than delivering local services.
The vote would have been the first direct electoral contest outside universities between Fatah – in charge of the West Bank’s largest towns, and Hamas, which governs the interior of Gaza, in 10 years. Hamas had won that previous contest, the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council.
If this year’s elections had gone ahead, voters would have been allowed to deliver their verdict on the performance of both parties. And in that quasi-referendum, Abbas, heading a divided and discontented Fatah movement, stood to lose far more than Hamas, which is in solid control of Gaza.
Win-win for Hamas?
Hamas played its cards carefully, announcing it would not run as a list in the West Bank but would instead support affiliated or sympathetic independents. A poor showing could be shrugged off. A good result would suggest that had the faction stood on a party list it would have done even better.
It was, said Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization, a “win-win” for Hamas. Concern about the results of local elections was also, she said, a sign that internal Fatah divisions are now one of Abbas’ primary preoccupations.
“Abbas is worried about Fatah fragmentation and obsessed with the possibility of opening the door for any challenge to his leadership from [Muhammad] Dahlan,” said Buttu, referring to the erstwhile Fatah leader in Gaza who was ousted from the coastal strip after Fatah members there attempted an unsuccessful US-backed putsch against Hamas in 2007.
Dahlan, who enjoys support from the United Arab Emirates and other regional countries, is often cited as the main rival to Abbas and a possible successor despite the fact that he hasn’t lived on Palestinian territory since he was dismissed from Fatah in 2011, and his domestic constituency is primarily in Gaza.
Compounding matters, there has been little renewal within Fatah’s ranks and no elections to the faction’s ruling body, the central committee, since 2009.
“Any ambitious local Fatah leaders have found their path blocked,” said Buttu. “The only way forward was to stand as independents.”
That, however, threatened a repeat of the 2006 elections, when a breakaway faction, al-Mustaqbal (Arabic for “the future”) led by the imprisoned but popular Marwan Barghouti and including several prominent members of Fatah, registered to run as a separate list.
A last-minute compromise was worked out, but divisions within Fatah were all too plain and played into what became a sweep for Hamas.
This time, retribution for abandoning the mothership was swift in coming. Fatah’s central committee had warned already before final registration in early September this year that anyone running as an independent would be struck off the party list.
And a day after the high court canceled the election, Abbas summarily fired two Fatah members in Hebron, former minister of local government Khalid Fahd al-Qawasmi and the deputy head of the Hebron municipality, Jawdi Abu Sneineh, who had put themselves forward as independents.
Those were not the only dismissals. Indeed, in the past year, Abbas has removed several officials from their positions, whether in Fatah, the PLO – of which he is also chair – or in PA institutions.
And last year, Abbas fired Yasser Abed Rabbo from his position as number two in the PLO.
The latest such poll – taken by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in June – indicated that Abbas would lose a straight run-off with the Gaza-based Haniyeh.
The gap between the two men had, however, narrowed slightly, when compared to a poll taken three months earlier. In a contest between the two men, 48 percent of respondents said they would vote for Haniyeh, down from 52 percent in the earlier poll. Some 43 percent of respondents said they would vote for Abbas, up from 41 percent a few months earlier.
Nearly two thirds of respondents in the June poll wanted Abbas to resign, while a majority considered the Palestinian Authority “a burden on the Palestinian people.” A full 80 percent believed that PA institutions were corrupt.
But the June poll also found Fatah slightly ahead of Hamas, and that with Marwan Barghouti as leader, Fatah would win a presidential election.
Barghouti, however, remains in an Israeli prison. An aging Abbas is still in power, clinging to a strategy – if that is the right term – of “negotiations, negotiations, negotiations.”
Such negotiations have done nothing to halt the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements and the worsening of Palestinian living standards.
And Hamas? The elections would have marked the first time since 2006 that the Islamist movement could measure itself up against Fatah.
Hamas’ time in charge of the besieged Gaza Strip has been an unhappy one, with three major Israeli military assaults, thousands killed, tens of thousands wounded and made homeless, one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and a UN warning that the coastal strip might be uninhabitable by 2020.
Yet the movement is still able to present a cohesive front, something that Fatah has been unable to do since the 2006 elections. Hamas also has a regional dimension with its affiliation to the broader Muslim Brotherhood, however beleaguered.
Fatah has become a collection of individuals. And Abbas appears to be increasingly fearful that elections will expose this reality.
Awkward questions could also be asked about his mandate to lead – it is 11 years since he was elected president. His term expired in 2009.
October’s municipal elections could have been a first step back into the democratic pool. Some high-level figures in the PA apparatus decided not to go near that pool – perhaps because they feared drowning.
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.