Upcoming elections and democracy in the West Bank and Gaza
On the 26th September, the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas renewed his pledge to hold parliamentary elections in a speech at the UN general assembly and called for an international presence to monitor the process. Abbas has been sporadically talking about elections since the beginning of the year, many of his critics arguing that this is an attempt to pay lip service to the voices calling for democratisation in the occupied territories of 1967. Indeed when he became President in 2005, Abbas initially had a four year presidential term. At the time of writing, he has exceeded his electoral mandate by a decade and his governing by presidential decrees as well as the increasing authoritarianism of the PA has left many questioning his sincerity for real democracy.
Many argue that the calls for elections are an attempt for the PA to renew its legitimacy at a time when its approval ratings are in the gutter and its position on the global diplomatic stage is the most vulnerable it has ever been. Certainly, the internal and external pressure for an electoral process is at an all-time high. Yet whilst international actors are keen for elections to forge ahead as quickly as possible, various Palestinian political factions have been calling on Abbas to hold a national meeting to agree on a variety of issues before the date of the elections are set. Abbas, however has thus far rejected the call to have a national meeting ahead of the announcement of parliamentary elections and rather ironically will likely go ahead with elections through presidential decree. Crucially, and surprising many within Fatah, Hamas has approved of holding both legislative and presidential elections. The remaining obstacle remains the issue of holding elections in East Jerusalem.
Abbas has stated previously that elections would not take place unless they also take place in the Palestinian capital and indeed the PA submitted an official request that the Israeli authorities permit this. There is yet to be an official response from the Israelis, but in general they repress PA political activity in Jerusalem arguing that the Oslo Interim agreement forbids it. The repression of political activity extends beyond PA and includes the arresting of political figures and activists as well as the shutting down of Palestinian cultural institutions. It is unlikely that any Israeli government would permit Palestinian elections in Jerusalem to take place, to do so would acknowledge legitimate Palestinian presence in the city and therefore challenge the Israeli claim of sovereignty over the entire city. Abbas and other officials including Saeb Erekat, have made it clear that the issue of Jerusalem could prevent the elections from taking place entirely.
Yet whilst all these political theatrics are taking place, a wider discussion on Palestinian democracy is being overshadowed. Whilst elections may seem like an important democratic process, this paper argues that in the case of the West Bank and Gaza, elections within the current status quo would actually be antithetical to democracy. Indeed they would simply prop up a system which does not allow for democratic space not does it truly seek to produce a democratic and representative leadership.
It is pertinent to discuss here what is meant by democracy and democratic practice beyond the traditional images of ancient Greece. Democracy is usually defined as a form of governance in which there is a representative and accountable leadership. Schmitter and Karl define it as follows;
Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.
Notably this definition highlights ‘citizenship’ as an essential part of democracies as it dictates who can take part In the system and who cannot. Thus it serves both as a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion. There are many types of democracies with varied practices depending on the particular country or state’s social, political and economic context. Socialist approaches to democracy are seen through the regulation and collective ownership of property whilst liberal approaches “advocates circumscribing the public realm as narrowly as possible.” Importantly, democracies are expected to promote democratic practice (including political plurality) in all areas of society not simply in governmental institutions.
This is an important point to note because there is a dangerous assumption made by many (particularly in the case of the West Bank and Gaza) that elections are interchangeable with democracy. This is not the case, whilst elections are a very technical practice than may well be a product of a meaningful democratic process and culture, but may also take part in a society where democratic characteristics are lacking or are absent entirely. Indeed democratic elections have to be part of a package in which democracy exists across society and where political plurality is accepted and encouraged. A cursory overview of the West Bank and Gaza reveals this not to be the case, in reality there exists two authorities operating under increasingly authoritarian governance.