Alexandra Vaughan
Last updated: 24 October, 2012

Palestinian elections: tangible democratic progress or political diversion?

Following the anticipation leading up to the municipal council elections in the West Bank, many Palestinians were left wondering on Sunday: what now? Depending on who you ask, the results were promising or disappointing, a long-awaited victory or yet another confirmation of how far Palestinian politics have sunk.

In the announcement of the preliminary results, the Central Elections Commission confirmed a voter turnout of 54.8%. The fact that 277,000 voters (of over 500,000 registered) turned out to cast their ballots on Saturday is somewhat impressive, due to the total boycott of Hamas. The turnout also surpassed expectations, with most electoral stakeholders considering even a 40% turnout as favorable. In the next month, 82 more localities will vote in a second round of local elections. But as those localities prepare for another round of campaigning, many Palestinians still find themselves wondering if real change is really on the horizon.

Critics were quick to point out that the attendance was well below the 73% turnout in the 2006 elections and after 179 localities were consigned to “winning by acclamation” due to single party ballots, many disenfranchised voters felt a lack of enthusiasm, which was reflected in polls many abstainers thought were a farcical distraction. The Carter Center stated that “the polls were marked by a lack of political pluralism and limited competition,” reinforcing what many Palestinians already suspected when heading into the elections on Saturday. In one recent survey, as many as 43% of West Bank residents felt that the elections would not bring about any real change.

Fatah declared an early victory Saturday night, before the Elections Commission had released its preliminary results. The actual outcome was somewhat more sobering. Official Fatah lists lost the majority in 5 of the 11 electoral districts, including the major population centers of Ramallah and Nablus. Of the 1,051 seats in contention, Fatah’s Independence and Development list won only 440, according to the Central Elections Commission Palestine’s report.

However, this “loss” could be a little misleading, as many of these independent candidates are Fatah “renegades” who either decided to break away from the party during the campaigning or were disowned by the party for creating independent lists. Now that these candidates have won, it remains to be seen if they might be welcomed back into the party with open arms. Nevertheless, the point clearly made on Saturday was that voters are tired of the current leadership. Fatah may stay in power for now, but their members want a new direction.

In addition, municipal council elections tend to be more service oriented, focusing on the local needs of the community and shying away from greater party politics. However, in light of Fatah’s disappointing self-defeat, many see the local elections as a harbinger for the general elections to come. The Palestinian Authority is facing an increasingly frustrated population who finds their leadership untrustworthy. In a recent public opinion poll, 79% of West Bank residents perceived corruption in PA institutions. Furthermore, 63.3% of Palestinians said that they are pessimistic of the general Palestinian situation at this stage.

Looking at the wider context, it’s difficult to compare the Palestinian elections to those happening in neighboring countries. Unlike the other elections taking place across the Arab world, these local elections don’t hold quite the same sense of achievement for Palestinians. The Carter Center called the elections “a positive but limited step towards the realization of democratization in the OPT.” When comparing Palestine with other democratization processes in the Middle East, Dr. Dirk Axtmann, an elections expert who has worked throughout the MENA region, observed: “Contrary to Tunisia or Egypt, these elections are not about ousting one big party or about promoting democracy after a revolution. Rather, elections are to be seen in the context of a democratization process, with all its pitfalls, since the 1990s and in the context of the elections in 2006.”

However, if there is one positive sign to come from the current vote of no-confidence, it is the emergence of other party options. As Dr. Axtmann says, “Palestine has a potential to become a model for the region – and this not because Palestinians are better democrats than Tunisians, Jordanians or Egyptians – but – because of the fact that there seems to be no longer just one political movement that is capable to impose its political vision.”