When President Mahmoud Abbas announced last month that the Palestinian Authority will be holding national elections for the first time in nearly 15 years, it reignited much debate over whether such elections could indeed be meaningful. Given the context of a fragmented Palestinian political body operating under a military occupation, what purpose would elections serve?
On the one hand, the decision to hold legislative and presidential elections, scheduled for May 22 and July 31 respectively, are finally addressing a longstanding criticism that the PA has been ignoring the Palestinian public will for far too long. Its leaders, who largely hail from the Fatah party, effectively overturned the results of the 2006 legislative elections through a violent conflict with Hamas, and have since overstayed their positions in power — especially Mahmoud Abbas, who is now a decade past his first term as president.
An opportunity to end this status quo at the ballot box has thus been welcomed by many — and for some, there are encouraging signs. During a meeting in Cairo this month, leaders of 14 Palestinian political parties, including Fatah and Hamas, committed to participating in and respecting the election results. If everything goes smoothly, observers argue, the elections could finally bring democratic governance to the Palestinian political system, and end the 14-year division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
This hope, however, is far too optimistic. While the PA’s lack of accountability is indeed a serious, debilitating issue for Palestinian society, the idea that elections are the solution to this impasse is built on several problematic assumptions: first, that the international community ever intended for the PA to be democratic; second, that holding elections prior to resolving divisions is a viable strategy; and third, that the PA is the main actor to move the Palestinian cause forward.
Repression and cooption
The Palestinian Authority has been an exclusionary institution since its very founding. As Manal Jamal notes in her book “Promoting Democracy,” the PA was designed to prop up very particular groups — chief among them Fatah — while sidelining large swaths of Palestinian society that were critical of pursuing a peace agreement under the Oslo Accords.
International influence encouraged the PA to deepen this exclusion over time; the most notorious manifestation of this policy was when foreign states, led by the administration of George W. Bush, backed Fatah to reject its loss in the 2006 legislative elections and to expel Hamas from government.
Since the 2006 elections, the PA has focused a great deal of its resources on demobilizing Palestinian opposition and decimating political parties that reject Fatah’s control — a mission led in coordination with Israel. This is carried out, among other means, through the PA’s Preventive Security Forces and other agents of its security apparatus, who routinely target political opponents with arrests, intimidation, and violence including torture.
Facing this repression, many organizations and activists have grown more insular and unable to mobilize effectively, out of fear of government crackdown. This has affected a wide range of groups outside of Fatah, including Islamist student activists on college campuses, members of the Palestinian People’s Party, activists with the Palestinian National Initiative, and others.
The PA has also infiltrated the public sphere by coopting the work of Palestinian civil society activists who challenge Israeli policies and Fatah’s primacy. It has done so, in part, by offering activists employment in bodies set up by the PA itself, such as the “Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission,” while involving PA officials in the coordination of social movements. Those who were coopted have become less likely to voice their opposition to the PA’s policies, or engage in activism to that effect.
The damage incurred by this patrimonial system has been playing out for years. My research, for example, found that a major tension among Palestinian civil society groups derives from their conflicting views of the PA’s state-building project and the Oslo Accords in general.
Some organizations refuse to collaborate with others that they view as doing the PA’s bidding, even if they share similar goals; some even label PA-affiliated groups as being “comprised” and “traitorous.” Within organizations themselves, some staffers criticize their senior colleagues as having an “illusion of influence” for coordinating their activities with the PA, which in turn foments disillusionment and burnout with their work and activism.
Voting is not enough
The impact of such authoritarian maneuvers thus may have already secured the outcome of the elections in Fatah’s favor. Although the elections are open to multiple parties, the alternatives to Fatah simply don’t have the organizing capacity, nor the conducive political environment, to run successful campaigns on a national scale. This could make the whole endeavor a futile exercise.
Moreover, even if Fatah’s main rival, Hamas, were able to contest the election freely, it may be an extremely close call that sows more problems than it solves. According to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research from September 2020, Fatah and Hamas are almost equally unpopular among Palestinians: 38 percent of respondents said they would vote for Fatah in parliamentary elections, versus 34 percent for Hamas. The respondents are also quite polarized according to geography, with Fatah enjoying more support in the West Bank (46 percent) and Hamas enjoying more in Gaza (45 percent). A bifurcated result, if questioned, could stoke further divisions or confrontations between the two parties once again.
Furthermore, the stock being put in this year’s elections is partly predicated on the belief that, unlike previous occasions, the international community would actually accept the results this time around — even if Hamas, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S., is re-elected into government.
This assumption has very little basis: foreign governments and international bodies, including the United States and European Union, have made no explicit assurances that they would accept the results, and have given very little encouraging reactions to Abbas’ announcement. Most importantly, Israel itself is likely to reject and undermine the election results if Hamas is voted in, making American and wider international approval ever more unlikely.
All these dynamics over the past 15 years have had a profound impact on Palestinian social cohesion. The PA’s use of exclusionary and repressive tactics has stoked deep divisions in Palestinian society around the PA’s existence and the path for moving out of the political impasse.
This has further obstructed the ability of groups across the Palestinian political spectrum to coordinate and face shared challenges together — such as the shifts in regional alliances following the Abraham Accords — and has emboldened Israel’s attacks on Gaza and its aggressive land theft in the West Bank.
Elections alone cannot resolve these structural issues. The crux of Palestinians’ political problem is not merely a lack of democracy: it is their factionalization and polarization, their eroded institutions, absence of strategic ideas, and poor leadership — crippling all the necessary components of a cohesive movement.
These dynamics are not erased by simply holding a vote; in fact, elections in such a fragmented, authoritarian context will only serve to exacerbate grievances between groups that refuse to take part; coopt and distract opposition forces that are willing to engage in the election process; and provide a cover of legitimacy for actors who have long lost their mandate to govern.
Re-centering the PLO
As such, rather than pursing PA elections, Palestinians should turn their focus instead to reviving the Palestine Liberation Organization — the original, centralized institution founded in 1964 that promotes the Palestinian national cause and represents Palestinians from all regions.
First, Palestinians should reform the PLO by expanding its membership and making it more representative of Palestinian political diversity; and second, they should remove the PA as the head of the leadership and return the PLO to the helm.
This is where Abbas’ call for elections for the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (scheduled for August 31) may be a more fruitful avenue to pursue change. Despite its limitations, and despite Fatah’s dominance within the organization, the PLO remains a model of a relatively successful liberation movement.
Importantly, the PLO, unlike the PA, defines itself as the representative of all Palestinians — not just those living in the occupied territories. By once again expanding the scope of the Palestinian agenda to include, for example, the right of return for refugees, Palestinians can move beyond the confined state-building paradigm and pursue more creative paths to justice.
Empowering the PLO’s original functions can also help Palestinians restore their tradition of soliciting a wide range of input from different segments of the Palestinian population, and provide a space for Palestinian thinkers and activists to discuss the community’s issues. Prior to the Oslo Accords, the PLO featured lively internal debates — who should lead the organization, how best to pursue resistance, how to navigate regional and international interventions, and more. Today’s PLO, and the PA that consumed it, are clearly a far cry from that dynamism.
To be clear, this does not necessarily entail that the PA’s institutions, which have been painstakingly built over the past 27 years, should simply cease to exist. The PA still plays a crucial role in providing services to Palestinians in the occupied territories, and offers mechanisms of self-governance in the short-term.
This is especially important now that Palestinian society has been hit doubly hard by economic downturn and the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the PA should resume its role as a subsidiary to the PLO, the true legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
In that vein, focusing on elections in their current form is at best a distracting charade, at worst a dangerous process that does more harm than good. They are neither the path to salvation, nor a prerequisite for solving the problems of accountability.
Rather than pursuing solutions to get Palestinians out of their current quagmire, our political leadership seems more intent on bickering over ballot boxes, which will not resolve any of these issues. Instead, these elections will only serve to reinforce the cantonization of Palestinian politics.