The long and bumpy road to Palestinian elections

The long and bumpy road to Palestinian elections
Comment: Palestinians are keener than ever to vote, but it's not yet clear whether persistent obstacles can be overcome, or the extent of change elections might bring, writes Jonathan Kuttab.
5 min read
23 Feb, 2021
Palestinian elections are due to take place in May, July and August this year [Getty]
Palestinians love elections and take them very seriously. Deprived of a state of their own and hungry for any form of self-expression, Palestinians eagerly embrace any opportunity to vote and elect their representatives at every level of governance.

Furthermore, in the absence of a proper democracy, elections are often accurate barometers of the current feelings of the population, and the relative strength of the different factions.

The problem, is that under occupation, those in charge often use elections to legitimise their status and position, going beyond the narrow scope of their office. If those elected are out of favour among the powerful, they can be imprisoned or deported.

The first round of national elections upon the creation of the Palestinian Authority included election of a president (Arafat was a shoo-in), and a Legislative Council. Different parties participated, and in the second round, Hamas - which was and still is illegal under Israeli military laws - participated as the party of "Change and Reform". 

Because of the splintering of votes among independents and Fatah, the Change and Reform party unexpectedly won, promptly declared itself to be Hamas, and demanded that the world accept it as the true representative of people in Gaza and the West Bank.

When Israel balked, and Fatah did not turn over the reins of power and Hamas took over actual authority in Gaza, while Fatah retained its position in the West Bank, ignoring the election results. A real anomaly resulted: The president, who was in fact elected, treated Hamas as illegitimate insurrectionists, while Hamas in Gaza considered itself the true representative, complaining that the world and the PA failed to recognise its democratic victory. 

In the absence of a proper democracy, elections are often accurate barometers of the current feelings of the population

Israel arrested most of the Hamas delegates who were in the West Bank, and the Legislative Council could not properly meet. What followed was 14 years of division and chaos, whereby Fatah ruled the West Bank, Hamas ruled Gaza, and both sides dispensed with the need for further elections when their term was up.

Israel moved promptly to arrest and detain the Hamas parliamentarians in the West Bank which exacerbated the situation, and the Legislative Council was effectively frozen.  Mahmoud Abbas, whose four-year term expired long ago, ruled by presidential decrees, and the Legislative Council, whose term also passed, could not even convene to legislate. 

Ordinary Palestinians, including prisoners, have pleaded for years with both Hamas and Fatah to reconcile their differences, and hold new elections, and many efforts have been made in that direction, but to no avail. Even when there was a supposed agreement to hold elections, questions arose over whether to hold presidential or Legislative Council elections, as well as their timing and form. 

Another issue was how East Jerusalemites would participate. Israel was refusing their participation, and it was clear that no elections could be held if any of the parties; Hamas, Fatah, or Israel, objected over fears the results would not be to their liking.

Read more: Abbas's rigged court system has already undermined Palestinian elections

Even when elections were announced, obstacles always appeared leading to their derailment. Some observers wonder whether this next round, scheduled for May 2021, will in fact be held as promised, or whether one of the three parties will find an excuse to cancel them, and blame the other side for it. 

To begin with, there are many details still to be worked out.  The new Palestinian election law treats the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as one electoral district, with parties submitting election lists and obtaining a number of seats in the new 132 member legislative council based on the proportion of votes they get.

This creates room for great conflict within each party to arrange the position of the candidates on the list, and who will get a higher, and more secure position. This is true for Hamas, where Ismael Haniyyeh and Khaled Mash'al and their supporters inside Hamas compete for the higher slots.  But it is even worse in Fatah, where different factions are allied variously with Mahmoud Abbas - the current president, Marwan Barghouti, who is in jail, Muhammad Dahlan, who is exiled, and others, who all have their supporters.  

Israel can also torpedo the entire process by announcing that it will not deal with a new government composed of Hamas individuals.

One proposed solution to this dilemma is to create a joint list of Fatah and Hamas candidates which would then sweep the elections practically unopposed. The idea would be a form of power sharing that would preserve the power of both major parties, who fear the wrath of the voters, who seem to be disenchanted with both Hamas and Fatah.  

Some pundits quip that if elections were held today, Fatah would lose in the West Bank, and Hamas would lose in Gaza. 

Most Palestinians will vote, if only to see a crop of new faces in positions of leadership

Why then, are elections finally being held after all this - if they are indeed held? One guess is that with the fading authority of the PA and its near collapse, outside forces, including donor countries and Israel itself, are interested in bolstering the Palestinian Authority by giving it the legitimacy of popular support that comes from elections.

More and more voices are complaining that the PA has lost its credibility, and is no longer seen as fighting for Palestinian rights. In fact, some are openly calling for a boycott of the elections as they will only confirm who is chosen to serve the Israeli occupation in a truncated Palestinian Authority that has duties and responsibilities but no true authority or power.

In all cases, if the elections are in fact held in May, most Palestinians will vote, if only to see a crop of new faces in positions of leadership.

Jonathan Kuttab is a leading human rights lawyer and a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. He is a resident of East Jerusalem and a partner of Kuttab, Khoury, and Hanna Law Firm there. He is the co-founder of Al-Haq, the first international human rights legal organisation in Palestine, and of the Palestine Center for the Study of Nonviolence.

Follow him on Twitter: @jkuttab

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.