Local elections could help unlock Palestinian political paralysis

Last month’s decision by the Palestinian Authority to schedule municipal elections in early October hardly registered in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, much less here in Washington. In light of Hamas’ recent decision to take part in the process, however, those elections have suddenly taken on new meaning. While the election of some 414 village, town, and city councils across the West Bank and Gaza Strip will not change the face of the Palestinian leadership or alter the diplomatic impasse with Israel, local elections have the potential to unlock the current paralysis within Palestinian politics.

Although Palestinian law calls for local elections to take place every four years, they have only been held twice since the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1993, only one of which could be deemed genuinely competitive. The first and only local elections to take place in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip were held in 2004-05, in which Hamas—in its first foray into electoral politics—made major gains. Local elections were again held in 2012, although this time Hamas boycotted the process, preventing the vote from taking place in Gaza and allowing Fatah to declare a sweeping, if somewhat hollow, victory. 

Hamas’ decision to take part in this year’s local elections was therefore something of a surprise. Indeed, Hamas initially expressed dismay at the announcement, accusing the leadership in Ramallah of acting without consulting the other parties. Moreover, should the elections proceed as planned on October 8, they would be the first competitive electoral contest in the occupied territories since Hamas defeated Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction in the 2006 legislative election. Those elections triggered an international boycott of the PA which eventually led to the split between Fatah and Hamas and the current political paralysis.

If nothing else, Hamas’ entry into the elections averts another needless internal crisis in Palestinian politics. A boycott by Hamas would likely have further entrenched the political and geographic division between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, while dealing yet another blow to the beleaguered National Consensus Government, which despite being accepted by both factions in April 2014 has yet to physically return to Gaza. Movement on the reconciliation track could also help push the long-stalled reconstruction of Gaza, which has yet to recover from the devastating war of 2014.

Hamas has little to lose from participating in an election that is unlikely to significantly alter the political landscape one way or the other…[and Fatah] has little to gain from “winning” another electoral process that is largely uncontested.

What explains Hamas’ apparent change of heart? For one, Hamas may believe it has an advantage over Fatah, which continues to suffer from widespread perceptions of corruption and incompetence—a perception reinforced by the collapse of the peace process as well as the unprecedented unpopularity of President Abbas. Hamas may also view the upcoming vote as a way to gauge its current standing and future prospects in anticipation of long-awaited legislative and presidential elections. Either way, Hamas has little to lose from participating in an election that is unlikely to significantly alter the political landscape one way or the other. 

Hamas’ decision to participate in the elections is welcome news for Palestinian voters eager to see the return of competitive elections and a revival of political life after years of stagnation. It even helps Fatah, which has little to gain from “winning” another electoral process that is largely uncontested. More important, as the party that lost both parliamentary elections and a civil war in 2006-07 and that remains the chief proponent of a failed process, Fatah desperately needs a political victory of some kind as well as a basis on which to stake its claim to legitimacy and continued grip on power.

That said, it is important not to overstate the significance of local elections, which in the end will do nothing to address the deeper problems facing Palestinians in the occupied territories, whether from Israel’s continued occupation and its ever-expanding settlement enterprise or the ongoing political dysfunction within their own ranks. On the other hand, the prospect of the first competitive Palestinian elections in a decade represents a small but significant ripple in the otherwise stagnant waters of Palestinian politics.