Palestinian academics and political observers have to declare their approval or opposition to the forthcoming Palestinian elections on May 22 and July 30.
The announcement in January by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that parliamentary and presidential elections would be held in the coming months was widely hailed. Of course not as a victory for democracy, but as the first concrete positive result of dialogue between competing Palestinian groups.
Regarding the internal Palestinian dialogue, if the elections go off without an obstacle, they might have a ray of hope that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories would eventually have some sort of political representation. This would be the first step toward a more comprehensive representation, which could include millions of Palestinians living abroad.
However, such modest hopes are contingent on a number of conditions. Whether Palestinian groups follow through on their promises under the Istanbul Agreement of September last year and Israel permits Palestinians, including Jerusalemites, to vote freely and refrains from arresting Palestinian candidates.
If all of these conditions are not met, the May election would certainly have no functional reason other than giving Abbas and his rivals the credibility, enabling them to buy more time and money from their financial patronages.
Thus, the main question is if democracy will thrive under military rule. 62 Palestinian ministers and members of the new parliament were thrown into jail almost directly after the last democratic Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the results of which displeased Israel; many are now in prison.
History in before us again: In the West Bank, Israel has already begun arresting Hamas leaders and supporters. At least twenty Palestinian activists were arrested on February 22, including Hamas leaders, sending a strong warning to Palestinians from the occupation authorities that Israel does not recognize their dialogue, reconciliation agreements, or democracy.
Since the most prominent Palestinian politicians are often behind bars, the Palestinian Basic Law requires prisoners to run for office in parliamentary and presidential elections. Marwan Barghouti is a renowned one. Having been in prison since 2002, he is Fatah’s most prominent official, though he is admired more by the movement’s youthful cadre than by Abbas’s old guard.
Hussein Al-Sheikh, the Minister of Civilian Affairs and a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, was sent by Abbas to dissuade Barghouti from running in the presidential race. Taking advantage of Barghouti’s reputation by letting him head the Fatah list in the Palestinian Legislative Council election would be perfect for the Palestinian president. En route, Abbas could guarantee a large turnout of Fatah backers while maintaining control of the presidency. The request was rejected strongly.
Between the Israeli military’s regular raids and crackdowns and the political intrigues inside Fatah, the question is whether the elections, if held, would eventually enable Palestinians to form a united front in the fight for Palestinian independence. There’s also the question of the world’s potential reaction until the election results are known. Hamas is attempting to secure assurances from Qatar and Egypt “to ensure Israel will not pursue its leaders and candidates in the forthcoming elections.”
Can Palestinian democracy continue to exist in its present state of limbo? The Palestinian Authority was formed as a temporary political entity, whose role should have ended in 1999, Abbas’s presidential term expired in 2009, the PLC’s term expired in 2010, and the Palestinian Authority’s was meant to be the transitional leader. Since then, the “Palestinian leadership” has lacked authority among Palestinians, relying instead on the patronage of foreign donors who are barely involved in promoting Palestinian democracy.
Election in Palestine, along with election in Israel, the fourth in two years, does not seem to be the key to the regional crisis. The way out of the current challenges goes through an independent election, but one election; one election for one country.