Palestinian elections: Recent polls show mixed signals

In terms of Palestinian democracy, there is no question that calling Presidential and Parliamentary elections for September 2011 (and maybe local elections) is the right thing. Postponed since 2009, holding elections can only strengthen the democratic culture and the legitimacy of state authorities. Holding regular, free elections in a non-state entity is actually an important part of state-building in other non-recognized states. In free and fair elections, such entities both choose leaders, but also signal internally and externally that the leadership is serious about its statehood project.

But there are many questions about who would win. Horse race polls this far out are not a sufficient indication. So the following is a round-up of selected survey data that addresses other topics likely to have an influence on Palestinian voting trends. I’ve tried to compile data that reflects the kind of questions asked in a typical election survey.

As in my past polling summaries here on +972, I’ve used initials for the polls cited, and listed the full poll details and links at the end. As always, this is just a selection of larger amounts of data that are easily available to those interested.

General Direction

Almost every election survey begins with an introductory question: “In general, is the country heading in the right direction or wrong direction? It’s the most basic barometer of whether people are likely to vote for change, or more or the same.

The December PSR survey asked a variation of this: “In general, how would you describe the conditions of Palestinians in Gaza today?” With 63% of Gazans (and 61% of West Bank residents) saying things are “very bad,” in Gaza, that’s a population that is probably looking for change. But which party will take the heat for that? Or perhaps the blame has been successfully pinned on Israel’s ongoing closure – which will mark four years in June (now that it is “partial,” pro-occupation types like to say things aren’t so bad there anymore. I’d like to see them living on the caloric minimums allowed by the Israeli authorities).

In the West Bank, the situation is clearly different.  West Bank respondents in the PSR survey break down almost evenly between:
•    “so-so” (34%)
•    “bad” or “very bad,” (36% total, with a 9% minority who said “very bad”)
•    Thirty percent who say things are good (25%) or very good (5%).

So the West Bank doesn’t offer such a conclusive picture about desire for change.  (Poignantly, 43% of Gazans believe things are good or very good in the West Bank – from where they are, it might look like the promised land).

The bleak outlook above belies the finding that relative to last year, things have improved. An IPI survey in August showed a notable increase in the percentage who say the country is going in the “right direction,” the more standard election survey question.

•    In the West Bank, the percentage who said “right direction” more than doubled, from 22% in 2009 to 56% in 2010
•    In Gaza, 19% of respondents said “right direction” in 2009, but in 2010, says the IPI survey, 30% felt this way.
•    Not only the feeling has improved – but responses in the IPI survey show perceived improvements in the economic situation in both places as well (from 35% in 2009 to 47% now in the West Bank, from 12% to 30% in Gaza, who say the economic situation is improving)


To the extent that Palestinian voters focus on Israel and the conflict in their electoral choice, they will be judging candidates’ positions on the issues such as: whether the candidate supports or opposes negotiations towards a two-state solution; the extent of compromises the candidate/party would make; the state-building project and a possible unilateral declaration; the end goal (two states or one state – for a great discussion on this, see here), and positions on sensitive issues such as refugees or Jerusalem.

Attitudes towards all of these will probably have shifted greatly since the release of the Palestine papers in January. Here are some key public opinion trends on those issues before the Papers were revealed:
•    In the November JIPP survey, more than seven-in-ten Palestinian respondents said that there was little to no chance of the establishment of a Palestinian state; just over one-quarter (27%) believed there was a medium (24%) or high (3%) chance.

•    Similarly, the November JIPP survey shows that nearly three-quarters think it is impossible to reach a negotiated agreement with Israelis (72%); just 27% say there is still a possibility

•    An absolute majority of 54% agree with a solution along the lines of the Saudi plan (more than can be said for Israelis in the JIPP survey – 60% of who rejected the plan).

•    Nearly three-quarters of Palestinians rejected the notion of a demilitarized Palestinian state in late November (JIPP). That’s one example of why people might have been so angry over the revelations that Palestinian negotiators had discussed just that:

A May 20, 2008 memo from the NSU – talking points for an upcoming security meeting with the Israelis – states bluntly that “Palestine will not require an army, assuming we agree to a third party role to take care of our defence needs.”

Still, overall, the PSR survey shows that an indisputable 63% majority support a peace process, compared to 18% who don’t (the rest, not surprisingly, have mixed feelings). Thus despite misgivings about the negotiations, Palestinians may still support Fatah’s position on this more than Hamas’ rejectionist approach. It is noteworthy that support for a peace process is higher in Gaza – 68% – than in the West Bank (60%). (For simplistic cynics who conclude that the closure is making the Palestinians cry ‘uncle,’ and therefore is somehow good for Israel, I recommend a lesson in Egyptology: oppression for the sake of peace is fool’s gold. And in Gaza, the repercussions probably won’t wait 30 years.)

Domestic Issues

Like in 2006, the Palestinian elections could focus largely on internal discontent. When the NEC survey asked what people think is the main source of their anxiety (the questionnaire does not offer “occupation” – if offered, it would probably automatically take top place.) NEC data consistently shows the following order of concerns:
The economic condition of the respondents’ household: 37%
The internal (Palestinian) dispute: 28%
Lack of security: 14%
Israeli occupation: 6% (unprompted)
Family problems: 3%

The following finding is confirmed in the PSR survey: Economic conditions and the Gaza/West Bank division are the most urgent problems, in that order.

Internal Palestinian Split: Given the findings, it could be that attitudes about which party will work to heal the rift will influence voting behavior:

•    If Hamas wins the next elections, 55% of Palestinians (a large plurality) think the division will deepen; 61% in the Gaza Strip.

•    If Fatah wins, just 31% say the division will deepen.

A regular electoral survey would include a battery of questions comparing expectations about each party’s performance for all the top issues listed above. Not all of them can be answered with available public data. However, there are a few more key areas that will certainly play a role:

Corruption: Hamas’ 2006 victory was largely attributed to people’s frustration over decades of corruption within Fatah.

The PSR survey shows a dismal picture: the large majority – 71% of Palestinians – believe that there is corruption in “Palestinian Authority institutions under the direction of Abu Mazin[sic].” Similarly, 61% say there is corruption in PA institutions of the “dismissed government in Gaza.”

Many people around the world assume that political institutions are corrupt on some level (for comparison, the 2010 Israel Democracy Index shows that 85% of Israelis think corruption in Israel is “rampant;” 44% say a politician must be corrupt to reach the top levels.) But that won’t make the Palestinians much more forgiving of the PA.

Corruption enrages voters who feel that their personal economic fortunes are directly affected by government thievery). With 47% of respondents reporting incomes below the poverty level (NEC), and personal economic situation topping the list of concerns, the accusation of corruption is not just run-of-the-mill disgust, but a reason for active protest.

Note that residents of Gaza and the West bank were each more likely to think the institutions in their location were corrupt, than the institutions of the other area.

Status of Democracy: If Egypt is any precedent, there is reason to believe that Palestinians might vote at least in part based on standards of democracy. And discontent is widespread:

•    Just 37% of Palestinians say the status of democracy and human rights under Abu Mazin is good or excellent (PSR)

•    Equal portions say it is either “so-so” or bad/very bad (30% each). In other words, a 60% majority is less than satisfied. (PSR)

Perhaps pollsters are able to elicit things that people won’t say publicly. It is painful to realize that fully 70% of West Bank residents do not feel they can openly criticize their leaders; and more than three-quarters of Gazans (76%). Nearly half of Gazans feel there is no press freedom (another 28% say there is partial freedom). About one-third of West Bank respondents say there is no such freedom and another 38% say there is partial press freedom there.

Government Job Approval

Beyond the specific social and policy issues, elections are also of course determined by attitudes towards the current leaders. The Palestinians are living in a rather unique situation of responding to two incumbents. The PSR survey shows overall dour attitudes towards both governments, with Ismael Haniya’s Hamas government in Gaza slightly weaker than Salam Fayyad’s leadership in the West Bank.

•    Forty-three percent (PSR) say that Fayyad’s government is doing a good or very good job. Interestingly, this figure is just a bit higher among West Bank residents (45%) than among Gazans (41%).
•    Haniya’s Hamas government receives 36% “good/very good,” responses (PSR), with only a small gap between the two areas (38% in Gaza and 35% in the West Bank).

Yet, there are signs that Fayyad is stronger than indicated by the figures above.

•    The negative assessments show a notable difference between those who live under Salam Fayyad’s government and those who don’t: Among Gazans, 29% see him doing a bad job, while just 17% of West Bank residents feel this way. The opposite holds true for feelings about Haniya – those who live under his rule are significantly more likely to give Haniya’s government bad marks (34%), compared to 23% among West Bank residents (in the PSR survey).

•    The IPI survey shows that personally, Fayyad has an absolute majority (58%) positive rating – higher than the Israeli and Lebanese Prime Ministers among their populations, in this same survey.

•    As I have already reported, the NEC survey shows striking improvement for Fayyad. At present, 69% said his was the legitimate government of Palestine, compared to just 10% for Haniya’s.

Between one-quarter and 30% give a neutral mark to both governments.

Abu Mazen, the Presidential symbol of PA leadership – is given favorable ratings by just half of the Palestinian respondents (PSR) – again, before the Palestine Papers.

Note that Jamil RAbah’s Near Eastern Consulting surveys – such as the latest one released in December – are consistently more optimistic-sounding for Fatah. He writes:

As for factional trust, the popularity of Fateh has increased to 49% compared to 44% in July, 2010, while the popularity of Hamas has dropped from 7% to 5% during the same period. As for those who do not trust any faction, the percentage decreased from 45% in July 2010 to 43%. The percentage of those trusting other parties remained the same (3%). (Near East consulting)

Election Dynamics
This context gives a more comprehensive lens with which to view the explicit electoral questions that have been asked. Here is a brief roundup:

Presidential Elections: Palestinian survey respondents tell PSR that in a Presidential election would choose Abu Mazen over Haniyeh, 56% to 38% – a healthy (but not irreversible) margin.

Were Marwan Barghouti to replace Abbas as the candidate, support rises to a truly solid 65% for Barghouti to 31% for Haniya, in the PSR poll.

Party Elections: PSR asked a simple question “which party do you support,” (not exactly the same as an electoral question). Thirty-two percent chose Fateh and 18% support Hamas – all the rest are divided among a range of parties (PFLP gets 4%, the Independent Islamist party receives just over 2%). But as very often seen in Palestinian surveys, over one-third of voters (the plurality) respond “none of the above.” It’s an inscrutable answer which means either: I don’t know yet, I’m not sure if I’ll go vote, or (quite likely, in my assessment) – I don’t want to tell you. It might also mean “I don’t support any of them, but when elections are held I’ll participate even though I dislike them all, and find the one that is least offensive, or seems likely to win.”

•    In the actual election question (“If elections for the PLC were held today and the parties were the same as in the last elections, 44% would chose Fatah, and 25% vote for  Change and Reform (the list headed by Hamas)
•    One-fifth didn’t know or refused to answer.
•    In both questions (about the election and about general support) Salam Fayyad’s party, Third Way, hovers just around 2%.

But things are definitely in flux. The IPI survey shows erosion for Fatah’s vote since 2009, of roughly ten points (to around 35%).


The data here show on thing clearly: there are forces acting for Fatah, both in terms of current electoral leanings and attitudes towards major social issues, such as the internal social divisions and state-building program, as well as attitudes towards the conflict. But some of the forces that brought Hamas to power are still there – the perception of a corrupt and non-democratic society under the Fatah government; and growing conviction that the two-state negotiation process is close to hopeless. High alienation of voters could also lead to voter fragmentation and the rise of one of the many smaller parties.

Who will win the Palestinian elections in September? It’s too soon to tell.


PSR (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research) – this is the same survey that is compared to Israel in the JIPP study; but the questions referred to are displayed only on the PSR site and are not part of the joint Israeli-Palestinian results.

The Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research, run by pre-eminent Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, is always a useful and credible source of polling. Aside from asking comprehensive questions, with large samples (this one is 1270) in Gaza and West Bank, the authors also provide healthy contextual background, to situate the results in the context of current events. The last poll that has been released was taken in mid-December, 2010 (Dec 16-18); it was a face-to-face survey, held in Gaza and West Bank (+/- 3%)
JIPP: November-December 2010 (n=1270) . The joint survey conducted by Jacob Shamir of the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and Khalil Shikaki of the PCSPR. The data here is taken from poll #38.

NEC: Near East Consulting group established by Jamil Rabah, based in Ramallah. N=850 (margin of error: +/-3.4%). (not available on-line)

IPI: The International Peace Institutes commissions surveys run by Charney Research, based in New York. The fieldwork was conducted together with the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion; n= 1019, and interviews were conducted face-to-face, between August 16 and 22, 2010 (margin of error: +/- 3%).