On 3 October 2016, the Palestinian Supreme Court of Justice ruled it illegal to hold municipal elections in the Gaza Strip, while deeming it legal to hold the same elections in the West Bank. Municipal elections were scheduled to take place on 8 October 2016. The court’s decision to cancel the elections cited the exclusion of East Jerusalem from the election process, as well as the ousting of five Fatah candidates from electoral lists in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip. The ruling, which sparked controversy across Palestine, prompted the government in Ramallah to postpone the elections for four months so as not to harm national unity.
Root Causes of the Issue
On 21 June 2016, the Palestinian government announced municipal elections would be held in all Palestinian territories. A total of 392 councils in the West Bank and 24 councils in the Gaza Strip were due to take part. Previous municipal elections were held in 2012. Those elections were held in only 353 councils, and were not held in 16 councils, including several in major cities. Internal differences within the Fatah movement led to the cancellation of the elections for the remaining councils. Also in those elections, the winner-takes-all voting system was not used. Rather, proportional representation was approved for each election list that ran in each council, and the electoral threshold was set at 8 per cent.
Palestinian political forces show interest in all types of elections, including university student elections and local council elections. Consequently, the two major Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah, engage in major mobilization and campaigning ahead of the elections. The vast majority of voters would elect either Fatah or Hamas, according to various polls conducted over the past years, and based on the experience of the previous legislative elections held in 2006. As a result, the electoral threshold is considered to be very high for parties other than Fatah and Hamas.
Political Stances, Partisan Blocs
After the announcement that there would be municipal elections, Hamas initially rushed to reject the election process. It demanded respect for the Palestinian reconciliation agreement signed in 2011, which states that internal Palestinian reconciliation should precede any legislative and presidential elections. This was intended to foster a favourable atmosphere for holding free, democratic and transparent elections. Hamas backtracked shortly after, however, and agreed to let the elections go ahead and to participate in them across the Palestinian territories.
There were two reasons for Hamas’s change of heart. First, the movement came under pressure, particularly from political forces and civil society organizations in the Gaza Strip. Second, the Central Election Commission (CEC) answered a number of questions raised by Hamas. These were as follows: Who will maintain security in the Gaza Strip during the election process? Which judicial body will be the point of reference for disputes and appeals about the electoral lists? How will the Palestinian Authority deal with the election results in the Gaza Strip, regardless of the winner? The answers to these questions were given by the head of the CEC, Dr Hanna Nasser, who said that the police apparatus in the Gaza Strip is authorized to maintain security during the election process; the courts in the Gaza Strip are authorized to receive and decide on appeals and disputes as stipulated in Palestinian election law; and the government in Ramallah will deal with the elected municipal councils in the Gaza Strip, just as they deal with the municipal councils in the West Bank.
Hamas also felt it had nothing to lose by participating in elections in the West Bank because it does not have a presence in any council there. Fatah welcomed the decision to hold elections from the start, and had expected that Hamas would not participate. Indeed, Fatah was surprised that Hamas agreed to hold elections in the Gaza Strip, according to observers. Despite Fatah’s confidence, however, it is facing its own internal divisions. One camp supports President Mahmoud Abbas and the other is affiliated with former Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan. Despite these political differences, Fatah took into account the fact that Palestinians in Gaza are tired of Hamas’s arbitrary rule, the nearly ten-year blockade of the Strip, the disastrous outcomes of the last three Israeli wars and the abject poverty which is aggravated by the lack of any vision for the future. Therefore, the indicators on the ground put Fatah in a much better position than Hamas.
In light of the dominance of Hamas and Fatah, small political parties have had no alternative but to form an alliance in order to circumvent the 8 per cent electoral threshold. Thus, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the People’s Party, the National Initiative Movement and the Fida Party united to form the Democratic Alliance.
Flaws in Electoral Lists, Politicized Judiciary
After Hamas agreed to participate in the elections, there was fierce competition between Fatah and Hamas on the formation of electoral lists, and both movements started to rally popular support. Initially, Hamas was clearly confused about whether it should nominate qualified candidates or choose its nominees based on their loyalty to the movement. Priority was eventually given to qualified candidates. Fatah, meanwhile, prioritized loyalty and family influence over qualifications. The other lists, whether for the Democratic Alliance or independent blocs, were largely composed of civil society activists, and the selection process was notably harmonious.
The various parties and blocs signed a code of honour to accept the election results and to act according to the law and the principles of integrity. However, the code did not prevent irregularities and breaches by the ruling authorities, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Hamas claimed to have seen several irregularities by some of Fatah’s cadres. Human rights groups and civil society organizations also witnessed irregularities by security forces in the West Bank against Hamas supporters.
On 29 August 2016, the CEC published 874 electoral lists that would run on 8 October 2016 in 416 local bodies, in order to allow the candidates to exercise their right to object and submit appeals to the commission. The CEC announced at the time that it had rejected the candidature of seven lists – six in the West Bank and one in Gaza – that did not meet the legal requirements to run. The CEC received 163 appeals. The majority related to candidate clearance, candidates’ place of residence or legal charges against candidates. Based on these appeals, the CEC additionally rejected the candidature of four Fatah-affiliated lists in the Gaza Strip in the councils of Nuseirat, Beit Hanoun, Umm al-Nasr and al-Zahra. In the West Bank, the commission rejected the candidature of one list in Yatta and revoked an earlier decision to reject the candidature of two lists in the towns of Qiffin and Bani Zayd.
Hamas was not pleased with the commission’s decision and appealed to the Court of First Instance regarding other councils that are affiliated with Fatah. As a result, the court in Khan Younis accepted the submitted appeals, rejecting on 8 September 2016 the candidature of five electoral lists belonging to the Fatah bloc, which includes Khan Younis, Abasan al-Kabirah, al-Qararah, al-Fukhari and Rafah al-Shawkah.
In light of the ruling, the Supreme Court of Justice nullified the government’s decision to postpone the elections, pending the outcome of the filed lawsuit. The lawsuit was adjourned until 3 October 2016. On the same day, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a decision to hold elections in the West Bank only, justifying its decision by saying that the courts of appeal in Gaza are illegal. The CEC declared that it would abide by the decision.
The decision caused widespread controversy and many local intellectuals and politicians predicted serious repercussions that would only serve to deepen the divide between the two territories. Opinion polls also showed that two thirds of Palestinians reject both the postponement of the elections and the decision to hold them only in the West Bank.
The reaction of the Palestinian parties and movements was mixed. Hamas, along with several other factions, condemned the decision, saying that it was politically motivated and would deepen the divide between the two parts of the homeland.
Leftist factions echoed a similar sentiment, and called for the elections to be postponed until a democratic atmosphere could be created. They also warned against politicizing the situation.
Fatah expressed satisfaction with the decision to suspend the elections in the Gaza Strip. Amin Maqbul, secretary of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, said that Hamas had established an illegal judicial apparatus in the Gaza Strip, and so the Supreme Court’s decision should be binding. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, accused Hamas of obstructing the democratic process by interfering in the elections through illegal appeals and referring to illegal courts.
Many analysts, civil society representatives and human rights activists condemned the decision and considered involving the judiciary in the political conflict to be a serious matter, because under the law one cannot hold elections in certain territories and exclude others. Besides, holding elections in all territories would also fulfill some of the requirements of the Palestinian national cause, as they put it.
The elections were supposed to be the first time Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank participated in joint elections since the division between Hamas and Fatah took root in 2007. Many hoped that this year’s elections would facilitate reconciliation between the two and pave the way for legislative and presidential elections, the latter having last been held in 2005. Instead, the postponement suggests that the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, and within the parties themselves, are deeper than originally thought.