Early January, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree announcing parliamentary and presidential elections, making it the first Palestinian vote in 15 years. Scheduled to be held in May and July in the West Bank and Gaza strip, these elections appear as a strong signal to the international community that the Palestinian Authority is speeding up its democratic transition. But some remain sceptical as to what this vote will really achieve. We asked Dr. Alaa Tartir, Palestinian researcher, his view on this decision and on the possible outcome.
The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced the first parliamentary and presidential elections for the Palestinian Authority in May and July in 15 years. What is behind this decision?
I wish I could say that the legislative and presidential elections announcement is due to home-grown, local, people-driven reasons, but in reality, it is far from that. I wish I could say it is due to popular demand and public pressure, or for the purpose of reforming the political system or reinventing the existing styles of governance, or even to renew the political leadership. I wish I could say it is a result of a long and complex process of democratization that elections will be "crowning". I wish I could say it is due to the outcomes and consequences of effective accountability mechanisms, or for the purpose of reviving dysfunctional organizational structures like the ones of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). I wish I could say it is due to a serious workshop that aims to convene a comprehensive meaningful national dialogue that revisits the Palestinian political program and adopts a forward-looking strategy and concrete action plan to realise rights and freedom.
None of the above-mentioned elements are reasons behind the intention to hold elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip later this year. The decision to hold elections is largely due to external - both international and regional - pressure and conditionality. The political leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) - and implicitly the leadership of Hamas - wanted to send a clear message to the new US administration that they are "ready for business", they are ready to return to the "old normal", and they are ready to receive the US financial "aid". They also wanted to send a clear sign to the Biden administration that they are happy to return to the "negotiation table", and by holding the elections, they think they are pre-empting the Israeli accusation that Palestinians are divided and fragmented to "negotiate meaningfully". This "internationally pleasing paradigm" is not a new practice as far as the PA leadership is concerned, in fact it is the dominant practice even though it has been detrimental to the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom, equality, and self-determination.
But beyond the pressure to please the Biden administration, the PA leadership is also under strong pressure from the donor community (especially the Europeans) to "renew their democratic mandate". However, donors are only interested in "nominal democracy", and they are interested in seeing "the Palestinians going to the ballot box", as one senior European diplomat told me, adding "we understand this is not real democracy, but it is better than nothing, and we are here to support".