Municipal elections rarely excite international attention. However, when elections in the West Bank and Gaza were scheduled for October 8, they represented something significant. They would have been a rare opportunity to reverse the rot in Palestinian institutions. They would also have been the first complete elections in the areas since 2004-2005. Balloting was planned across 416 municipalities—391 in the West Bank and 25 in Gaza—for local councils responsible for the delivery of services, such as water and electricity.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. In early September, the Palestinian High Court (a body that rules in litigation involving official actions) temporarily suspended the elections to consider the legitimacy of decisions taken by courts in Gaza and the fact that no elections would be held in Jerusalem. It set September 21 as a date to revisit the issue. However, when it used that session merely to schedule another one for October 3, it forced the Central Election Commission to acknowledge that there was no hope of honoring the original election date. More ominously, the High Court seemed to be accepting the arguments of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Bar Association. Those arguments—especially combined with a political impasse at all levels—suggest the delay could be a very long one indeed.
The legal issue raised by the Bar Association involved the fact that Fatah lists in Gaza were disqualified by Hamas-dominated courts there. The High Court found that the actions of the Gaza courts were not legitimate. In 2007, when the Palestinian Authority split in two, most Gaza judges refused to work for the Hamas government, so Hamas appointed new judges. If the Ramallah-based High Court continues to reject any role for the Hamas-appointed Gaza courts on the matter of municipal elections, it will effectively require full judicial reunification before Palestinians can vote in such elections.
And that is not all. The High Court also suspended elections because no balloting would take place in East Jerusalem. Ironically, this reality did not hold up municipal elections in 2004-2005. An even more restricted set of local elections was held in 2012 in parts of the West Bank, without the High Court objecting either. (In the past Palestinian Jerusalemites participated in presidential and parliamentary elections through a cumbersome set of arrangements negotiated with Israel).
By requiring both Palestinian reconciliation and Israeli-Palestinian agreement over Jerusalem, the High Court judges have created conditions that are virtually impossible to fulfill today, thereby risking wasting $8 million spent on election funds. Unless it reverses itself, the court also may be making it unlikely that Palestinian children and grandchildren will ever be able to go to the polls.
Why the Opposites Were Attracted
Palestinian election mechanics are sophisticated. Municipal elections are to be overseen by the Central Elections Commission (CEC)—a truly nonpartisan body in a political landscape in which few other structures can make that claim. They are also based on a system of full proportional representation with closed lists of candidates.
There is considerable Palestinian interest in the elections. Before the High Court’s ruling, the two largest political parties, Fatah and Hamas, had compiled their respective lists, marking the first time they would have competed against each other since the Palestinian Legislative Council elections of 2006. For its part, Hamas had put significant effort into supporting a variety of independent lists based on professions rather than focusing solely on party-affiliated lists. In addition, five leftist parties formed an alliance with the intent of running on a unified list for the first time. Many other smaller independent lists were prepared as well.
With Fatah in control of the West Bank and Hamas governing Gaza, both had to agree in order for the CEC to do its work. How did such antagonistic political forces see eye to eye over organizing local elections?
For Fatah, such elections offered the possibility of renewing its popular standing at a time when it is riven by leadership struggles and struggling against seeming irrelevance. The movement has been all but forced underground in Gaza and the possibility of reestablishing a presence would have allowed it to pursue its political activities there for the first time in a decade. But the local elections also carried two real risks for Fatah—that it might lose many races and that it would tear itself apart in internal squabbling. Both have materialized in the past.
Hamas faced a similar set of calculations and uncertainties. It risked a public backlash against its rule in Gaza, even as the possibility of a reemergence in the West Bank beckoned. Hamas does not trust Fatah or the political leadership in Ramallah to run fair elections or to abide by the results. However, it does have grudging respect for the CEC.
For its part, Israel could have obstructed elections but probably not prevented them. (Parliamentary and presidential elections require balloting in areas under direct Israeli control as well as far more mobility for election officials, and thus cannot be held without Israeli consent.) While the reemergence of Hamas in the West Bank would be a noxious development in Israel’s eyes, Israeli officials tend to hold their tongues on municipal voting. That may be because a viable set of local governments would be a salutary way for it to retain security control in the West Bank without being saddled with providing services.
Local Rejuvenation May Have to Wait
If the elections are effectively cancelled, the effect will not be limited to Palestinian municipal services. Those will continue to be provided as unevenly as they are today. While elections were hardly seen as a panacea for Palestine’s many political ills, they would have forced its tired leaders to face their own people, injected new blood into the system, garnered the attention and even the participation of an increasingly alienated population, and chipped away at the Fatah-Hamas split. It is worth noting that the only dependable elections now in Palestine occur within the Hamas movement—likely increasing the vitality, or at least the viability, of that diverse organization.
In a region rich with overcentralized and unaccountable governance systems, local politicians with some experience in questions of public administration would have been an unusual but welcome element—one that Palestinians will likely have to learn to live without.