Palestinians in West Bank head to the polls, complain about lack of competition


Members of the Palestinian security forces wait in line to vote at a polling station in the West bank town of Ramallah, on Oct. 18, 2012. (Atef Safadi/EPA)
October 19, 2012

— When local elections opened on Saturday, Palestinians across the West Bank began to exercise their right to vote for the first time in six years. Here in this city, the poll carried even more significance: A long 37 years have passed since residents last cast ballots for their municipal council.

But there is scant sign of Arab Spring-era democratic fever. Though banners featuring candidates’ solemn faces hang over bustling intersections in Hebron and about 100 other districts, no vote will take place in about 250 others. In those, open seats were contested by too few candidates or only one party.

Even in more competitive spots such as Hebron, where six party lists are vying for 15 council seats, most analysts predict an easy win for Fatah, the secular party that has dominated in the West Bank. Its main rival, the Islamist party and militant movement Hamas, is boycotting the vote.

“I don’t think it is a decent election,” said Munjed al-Zatari, 30, speaking in the fragrant Hebron spice shop that he owns. “It is a done deal.”

Zatari’s words reflect a common and deepening sense of political stasis in Palestinian politics, which were not long ago the vanguard of a region shadowed by unchallenged strongmen and monarchs. But in an era of Arab uprisings and new democracies, it is the Palestinians who often look stuck.

The political scene has been divided since 2006, when Hamas swept to victory in parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza. After a brief battle, Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority assumed power in the West Bank and the Palestinian parliament essentially went dark. Repeated pledges to reconcile — a move widely viewed as crucial to winning an independent Palestinian state — have gone nowhere.

Fiscal crisis

In the West Bank, discontent with the donor-funded authority simmers. Amid a fiscal crisis largely caused by aid shortfalls, there have been cyclical street protests over rising prices. Polls show residents’ priority is ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but efforts by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah to win U.N. backing for a Palestinian state have stalled amid opposition from Israel and the United States.

Hamas representatives and supporters say they are persecuted — a charge Fatah followers in Gaza also make — and grumble about one-party domination.

Against that backdrop, some here say the West Bank local elections, the first since 2005, are a sign of progress — or at least hope. Election enthusiasts say that even if municipal councils have limited authority in a territory mostly controlled by the Israeli military, at least West Bankers are getting a chance to pick them.

Breakaway Fatah factions promising new ideas are injecting an element of competition. And in Hebron, a conservative city that was deemed too unstable to participate in the last vote, there is much buzz about an all-female list that pledges to change a patriarchal local mentality.

“Hamas made the mistake of not participating,” said Randa al-Natsheh, 19, a university student, who said she would eagerly cast her ballot for a small party list. Hamas dominated the 2006 parliamentary vote in Hebron.

Pre-vote polls

Analysts say confidence in the elections will only be measured once the votes are counted. That is in part because of varying pre-vote polls: One September survey by the Arab World for Research and Development group found that 72 percent of registered voters planned to cast ballots. Another, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that just half of all West Bankers would vote. Even fewer said they thought the vote would be fair.

Hatem Kafisha, for one, says it will not be. Kafisha won a parliamentary seat on the Hamas ticket in 2006. Now, he said, he and his comrades face constant harassment. If their party ran, he said, he is sure the vote would again be postponed.

“Fatah lost legitimacy in 2006,” Kafisha said. “Now they are trying to retrieve it in the municipal election.”

At a women’s center not far away, the official Fatah list, known as “Independence and Development,” lined up on a stage. There were 13 men and two women, and they pledged to end traffic jams and improve water services.

Juice and wafer cookies were distributed to the all-female audience, which filled only about one-quarter of the seats. At the end, there was a whirlwind question-and-answer session — one question, to be exact. A woman in the front row complained that the city’s current, appointed municipal government was unresponsive.

“You all say, ‘Our doors are open,’ but once you win, you close your doors,” she said.

Afterward, candidate Raghad Dwaik, an English professor who said she was running to serve her community and empower women, acknowledged skepticism about the legitimacy of the vote. Palestinians want a state, something municipal councils can do little about, she said.

“You cannot say that it will be representative of everyone. But it will be representative of the people who believe in the election,” she said of the vote. “We hope to change their minds when they see the services.”

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