Voting in the Palestinian territories rarely occurs when it is supposed to, and this year is no exception. One month before local elections were scheduled across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Supreme Court in Ramallah postponed the vote until it rules on two complaints regarding the authority of Gaza’s court system to disqualify candidates and the exclusion of voters in East Jerusalem. Though nominally independent, the court’s judges were appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas, and the decision provides a convenient pretext for the ruling party, Fatah, to avoid an embarrassing defeat at the polls.
But with an extensive security apparatus — and with Israel, the United States and neighboring Arab states dependent on Fatah’s continued control of the central Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions — what does Abbas have to fear from Palestinians electing their village, town and city councils? A look back at the recent history of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza sheds light on why opportunities to elect new leadership at the local level can be so important in this context of frozen conflict.
Local elections can strengthen regimes … or backfire
Research on elections in non-democratic countries suggests that single-party regimes can use elections — at the subnational or national level — to strengthen their rule by co-opting potential opposition and cultivating loyal elite networks. However, in the West Bank, these strategies have often backfired for those in control.
Before the creation of the PA, the West Bank and Gaza were directly administered by Israel, and appointed municipal council members largely came from the existing class of elites who had prospered under Jordanian rule. Israel briefly allowed municipal elections in 1972 and 1976. But when Palestinian nationalists swept to victory in 1976, they used their platform to advocate for resistance against the occupation. Several of these mayors were targeted by extremists from the Jewish Underground, and by 1982, all elected officials were replaced by mayors appointed by Israel. However, this electoral experiment foreshadowed the Palestinian national movement’s popularity inside the territories, which aided grass-roots mobilization efforts during the first intifada, the first major uprising against Israeli rule.
Rulers don’t always learn from others’ mistakes
Palestinians held their first national elections in 1996 following the creation of the PA, but municipal elections were not conducted until 2004-2005. In the interim, a relatively independent central election commission was created, and Fatah greatly expanded the number of municipalities to project Palestinian state presence across the West Bank. However, in a way, Fatah repeated Israel’s mistake; it held elections at a time when disillusionment with the status quo was high. The elections began in December 2004, when polls were predicting optimism with the peace process and an increase in popularity for Fatah. But the three subsequent rounds of voting continued into late 2005, as the second intifada was entering its fifth year, Israel was engaged in active conflict while also withdrawing its settlers from Gaza, and Palestinian support for Hamas was on the rise.
Thus, while Hamas’s victory in national legislative elections in 2006 is often portrayed as a sudden shock to the Palestinian political system, the preceding local elections provided evidence of the Islamist movement’s growing popularity. Hamas-affiliated lists performed strongly in the last round of local polls in December 2005, capturing a majority of towns in Gaza and several key West Bank cities. When the Middle East Quartet mediation group froze aid to the PA in the wake of Hamas’s national victory in 2006, some of these Hamas-governed municipalities in the West Bank saw their funding for donor-financed projects disappear as well. In subsequent years, some council members who did not identify as members of Hamas but ran on Hamas lists were arrested by Fatah’s security services.
While the PA attempted to hold local elections again in 2012, Hamas did not officially participate and only about one-quarter of the region’s municipalities held voting. Still, some mayors who had run on Hamas lists remained in office in the West Bank from 2005. Although a number of these leaders did not self-identify as Hamas members, Fatah’s attempt to wipe the slate clean and reinstall Fatah loyalists through elections was not as successful as hoped.
Subnational elections in autocratic regimes can be signs of change
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have long functioned under an autocratic national authority that prioritizes internal security and policing. This “security first” paradigm in the West Bank has ensured that challengers to authority structures have been met with repression. When Israel governed the territories directly, the main threat was from Palestinian nationalists, including Fatah. Today, with Fatah in charge in the West Bank, the main threat comes from Islamist groups, such as Hamas, and even militant groups associated with Fatah that have chafed under Abbas’s heavy-handed rule.
The Palestinian Authority is an electoral democracy in name, but the governments that rule in the West Bank and Gaza are effectively one-party regimes. Following Hamas’s victory in 2006, violent clashes resulted in the Islamist movement seizing control of the Gaza Strip and taking over PA institutions there, including the Interior Ministry, public police and security forces. Fatah, for its part, purged much of the central PA authority structures in the West Bank of Hamas supporters. Today, these two islands of Palestinian rule persist — each under the seemingly firm grip of a single party.
Yet beneath the surface of these coercive states, sporadic episodes of relative self-rule at the local level in the West Bank and Gaza have made local elections a historically important harbinger of political sentiment. In a setting where it is unclear how the population’s interests are being represented at the national level, subnational elections are a valuable mechanism for opposition movements to form popular bases and demonstrate competence in governance. Local elections, just as they did for a brief time when Israel directly ruled the territories, have served as an important, if not entirely even, counterweight to autocratic authority. Perhaps more important, they have often served as the bellwether of fundamental shifts in the Palestinian resistance movement.
Diana B. Greenwald is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter at @hispeedtourist.