After national vote nixed, PA seeks legitimacy in local elections

With a 2-part structure that starts with Fatah strongholds and leaves contested cities for later, ballots are seen by some as just an attempt to hush increasingly loud critics

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas casts his vote in Fatah elections at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the city of Ramallah, on December 3, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas casts his vote in Fatah elections at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the city of Ramallah, on December 3, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)

Under fire over the death of a prominent critic, facing dwindling popularity and smarting from the latest cancellation of long-overdue national elections, Palestinian Authority leaders are touting an upcoming local vote as an expression of democratic vigor in the hope it will soothe bubbling frustrations.

But critics say the regularly scheduled vote will fall short of democratic standards and do little to mollify a public that has waited over 15 years to pick a new national leadership.

“This won’t provide legitimacy for anything,” said former senior Fatah official Nasser al-Kidwa, who has emerged as a leading opponent of the current Palestinian leadership. “This isn’t a solution.”

According to a Western diplomat in Ramallah, the international community had pushed for the local elections — among other moves — to take place as tensions in the West Bank mounted over the summer.

“The announcement of local elections came immediately after these high-level contacts we’d been having [on the subject],” said the diplomat, who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.

With the legislative elections on indefinite pause, PA officials have praised the upcoming local vote — the first since 2017 — as the embodiment of the Palestinian democratic process.

“In the name of the cabinet, I salute the spirit of democracy that reigns in the nomination process for the local and village elections,” premier Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stands next to European Union envoy to the Palestinians Sven Kuhn von Bergsdorff (right) and election commissioner Hanna Nasir (left) at the opening of a new Palestinian Central Elections Commission headquarters on Tuesday, November 9, 2021 (WAFA)

At the opening of a brand-new, multimillion-dollar Palestinian Central Election Commission headquarters on Tuesday night, PA President Mahmoud Abbas touted the presence of women on the electoral slates. Around 25 percent of lists had women candidates, according to Abbas.

“We are a civilized people. We deal justly with the fairer sex, who enjoys both full rights and the ability to exercise them,” Abbas said.

The vote will be held on schedule, as local elections are set to be held every four years. But observers say they are unlikely to follow a straightforwardly democratic path.

The local vote will be held in two rounds. The first tranche, in early December, will be held in 387 small villages and towns — the vast majority of them strongholds of Abbas’s Fatah party. The second round, which comprises around 90 cities whose votes will be less predictable, is set to take place in March.

Fatah’s main rival Hamas will boycott the vote, as in previous local elections, senior Hamas official Hassan Yousif confirmed. In the West Bank, in any case, the majority of electoral slates are running unopposed.

Fatah dominates the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, while Hamas rules the Gaza Strip.

In turn, the terror group will not allow the local elections to take place in Gaza — also a repeat of previous municipal elections. This time around, Hamas justified its boycott by citing the need to revive the canceled national elections.

“The PA’s announcement of fragmentary local elections is an insult to our national situation, and a deviation from our nation’s path,” Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim told reporters in August.

Qasim said that Hamas would only join “comprehensive” elections that included votes for the long-dormant Palestinian legislature and the PA presidency.

The Western diplomat stressed that they did not see the local vote as a substitute for the thwarted national elections.

“In [my country], we have strong municipalities, so by tradition we believe in democracy from the bottom up,” the diplomat said.

In this Oct. 20, 2012 file photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections, at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

Critics say the vote has been arranged in an attempt to legitimize an increasingly beleaguered Palestinian Authority in the midst of repeated political crises.

Abbas indefinitely delayed Palestinian national elections scheduled for April, which would have been the first in 15 years, blaming Israel for not making clear whether East Jerusalem Palestinians could participate. Most observers said that Abbas had effectively canceled the vote due to fears of a humiliating loss for his own internally divided Fatah movement.

Ramallah has seemingly slid from crisis to crisis since then, and Abbas’s popularity has nosedived in recent months. The May war between Israel and Hamas saw a spike in popularity for rival Hamas, although Fatah has since reclaimed some ground in opinion polling.

With no national vote in sight nor any progress toward ending Israeli rule, the aging Abbas — whose term in office expired in 2009 — saw a record 78% call for his resignation in August, according to a survey by veteran Palestinian pollster Khalil Shkaki.

The PA has taken additional fire over the alleged killing of Nizar Banat, a popular critic of Abbas, by PA forces, which sparked widespread outrage among Palestinians. Banat’s death saw rare protests in downtown Ramallah calling for Abbas’ downfall. The rallies were violently repressed by the PA.

Even the local elections are viewed by some as having been tipped in Fatah’s favor due to its two part-structure, where Fatah strongholds get to go first.

“These are piecemeal elections, which will be conducted in deliberately chosen localities,” al-Kidwa said by phone. “They have no credibility whatsoever.”

In 57 percent of the first wave of municipalities, there will not be any competition against establishment-backed candidate slates in the elections, according to independent Palestinian political analyst Jihad Harb.

“In this first round, the results have been decided well in advance,” Harb said.

Thousands of Fatah activists gather in a rally in support of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday, July 3, 2021 (WAFA)

According to Harb, the ruling Fatah party hopes to create the appearance of widespread popular support for the movement through overwhelming victory in the first round of the vote.

“This would serve as good public relations before the international community as well as against Hamas, so Fatah can say that it represents the vast majority of the Palestinian people, through its representation in the local councils,” said Harb.

Palestinian officials have privately told diplomats that the two rounds are necessary so election officials can use the first vote to work out any kinks before big cities head to the polls. But the justification has seemingly failed to mollify concerns.

“We are not happy with these two rounds, with the first round only being in those municipalities of minor importance. This keeps the final judgment on the truly important municipalities until March,” the diplomat said.

Asked whether they feared a delay should the first round go poorly for Fatah, the diplomat said that with two rounds, “something can always happen.”

“If they’d said they were having them together on one date, that would be more convincing,” they added.

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