PA elections announced, but democracy a long way off

Appointed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad submits his government’s resignation to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, 14 February. (Thaer Ganaim/MaanImages)

Demonstrations are continuing uninterrupted across the Middle East and North Africa, where protesters remain steadfast in their demands for democracy. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority’s leadership in Ramallah has announced that it will hold municipal, presidential and legislative elections within the year.

This announcement — coupled with appointed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stating that he intends to dissolve his cabinet — has been seen by many analysts as an attempt to quell any potential uprisings from taking place in the occupied West Bank, rather than a legitimate move toward democratic reform.

“The timing aspect may have something to do with what’s happening in the Arab world and the fact that a lot of the people are upset with the authoritarian governments. [The PA wants] to show that they are able to hold elections,” explained Mazin Qumsiyeh, a political analyst and author based in the West Bank.

The PA cabinet announced on 8 February that municipal elections would be held in the West Bank and Gaza later this year, on 9 July. The presidential and legislative council elections will also be held for the first time since 2006, PA officials said, before September of this year.

In response, Hamas leaders stated that they would boycott any future elections because of the gulf that persists between the PA-controlled West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza.

“Talk about holding elections in light of divisions and without agreement is null and void and the results won’t be accepted,” the Hamas government said in a statement. “Suppression of freedoms by the Palestinian security forces, which collaborates with the occupation in the West Bank, doesn’t create a proper atmosphere for holding fair elections.”

Hamas was elected with overwhelming support during the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Shortly thereafter, Western governments withdrew their funding to the Hamas government, and many also threatened to withdraw financial support to the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that the election results were deemed legitimate by international observers.

In 2007, following armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters that erupted in Gaza, Hamas leaders retained local authority of the Gaza Strip while the Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Authority maintained administration of the West Bank.

According to Qumsiyeh, while it remains to be seen how the upcoming elections will take shape, one thing is clear: the division between Hamas and Fatah only distracts Palestinians from the larger issues they must deal with on a daily basis, most notably the Israeli occupation.

“I think we have authoritarian rule here in the West Bank and we have authoritarian rule in Gaza, so it’s not clear that this [election] is going to matter much,” Qumsiyeh told The Electronic Intifada. “I think we have a much bigger issue than these local elections. I think all of these things are distractions from the real issues at stake.”

Postponing elections illegal

The Palestinian High Court ruled last year that the Council of Ministers of the Palestinian Authority had no jurisdiction to cancel Palestinian municipal elections as it did in June 2010 (“PA: Elections canceled for sake of Gaza,” Ma’an News Agency, 10 June 2010).

At the time, the Council of Ministers vaguely explained that it was postponing local elections indefinitely in order to bridge the rift between Hamas and Fatah and “for the sake of the public interest.”

But to many, the PA’s motivation for canceling the elections was a fear that they would lose seats to opposition parties.

“What’s happening in reality on the ground is that the election was canceled without any legal reason or justification,” Wa’il Qut, a lawyer and member of the legal unit at the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center — one of three human rights organizations that helped draft the appeal to the High Court — told the Electronic Intifada.

“The content of the decision was very clear that it was a cancellation of the election, not [a postponement]. The local election law stated that the election could be postponed only for four weeks in some districts if there is an urgent circumstance that prohibits us to implement the election there. This condition wasn’t [met],” Qut said.

Four electoral lists — Ramallah for All, Martyrs of Asira in Nablus, the Tulkarem-based Independents list and The Nation for All — petitioned the High Court and challenged the legality of the council’s decision. The Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center along with rights groups Al-Haq and Addameer provided them with legal representation.

“Under Article 26 of the Palestinian Basic Law, the Palestinian people have a right ‘to vote, to nominate candidates and to run as candidates for election, in order to have representatives elected through universal suffrage in accordance with the law,’” wrote Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq in a 13 December 2010 press release announcing the High Court’s decision (“Right to Democracy Upheld by Palestinian Supreme Court”).

“The Palestinian [High Court] ruling effectively cancels the Council of Ministers’ decision to postpone elections and requires them to promptly set a date for the local elections. This ruling represents an important contribution to affirm democratic rights in Palestine,” the statement added.

PA legitimacy questioned

In 2007, shortly after armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dismantled the existing Hamas-Fatah coalition government. In its place, he appointed an “emergency cabinet,” headed by Salam Fayyad who was appointed as Prime Minister, which was allowed to take office in without receiving the approval of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Abbas suspended three articles of the Palestinian Basic Law in order to appoint this new government, a move which Hamas deemed illegitimate.

Since this time, the Palestinian Authority parliament’s term was extended since it expired in 2010. The Palestine Liberation Organization central committee — which is run by Abbas himself — voted to extend his term as president indefinitely after it expired in 2009.

Al Jazeera’s January release of the Palestine Papers, a cache of more than 1,600 documents exposing the past decade of US-brokered negotiations between Israel and the PA, also dealt a significant blow to the PA’s legitimacy.

The Palestine Papers suggest that Palestinian negotiators offered unprecedented concessions to the Israeli government during so-called peace talks, especially regarding Jerusalem-area Israeli settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

As a result of the leaked documents, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned from his post earlier this month. Erekat said that he was submitting his resignation after an internal investigation into the Palestine Papers revealed that the leak originated from his office at the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit.

“For a long time, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have been people standing in a funeral home, waiting for the coffin to be brought in. It was clear that the Israelis had no intention to end the occupation,” explained Amjad Atallah, a former advisor to Palestinian negotiators and the co-director of the Middle East Task Force of the New America Foundation.

“The difficulty is that the [Palestinian] leadership has been tactical every step of the way. It hasn’t seen this as an exit ramp on how to get off the negotiations freight train that’s going off a cliff. They keep waiting for this moment when negotiations will actually be feasible again. I think that they won’t be able to continue,” he said.

Atallah added that he hoped that Palestinian civil society organizations would fill the vacuum being created by the Palestine Papers and the faltering Palestinian Authority.

“Palestinian civil society is way ahead of the Palestinian leadership,” Atallah stated during a briefing organized by the the Institute for Middle East Understanding on 24 January. “I think what’s going to happen is that these documents are going to open the door to everyone that’s been a critic of this path [of direct negotiations with the Israeli government]. There’s a lot of room for improvement. There’s also room for this to get worse. My concern is that there aren’t that many players that are actually going to be able to intervene in the most positive way.”

Limiting of freedoms worrying

In recent weeks, the PA and its supporters have made a concerted effort to shut down nonviolent demonstrations in solidarity with the people in Egypt and Tunisia and against the dictatorships that have ruled these countries for decades.

Supporters of the PA infiltrated a 1,000-person-strong demonstration against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held in the West Bank city of Ramallah in early February. A demonstration held one week earlier in front of the Egyptian representative office in Ramallah was also disrupted by PA police and security forces, who violently dispersed the crowd of approximately thirty protesters.

According to Mazin Qumsiyeh, this clear limiting of freedoms is a bad sign for democracy in the West Bank.

“There are Palestinian laws about freedom of assembly and demonstrations and so forth and [the PA is] not obeying it. I think the indications are very negative for our own democracy. Eventually people here are going to rise up,” Qumsiyeh said.

“My advice to all leaders, Palestinians, Egyptians, Israelis … they better start looking for what the people want,” he added. “The people want democracy. They want freedom. This is the big picture. There’s a global uprising that’s happening and empowerment of people. If the leaders want to keep going with the status quo, it won’t succeed.”

Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at