On the Postponed Palestinian Elections: The Role of the Left

 

Image by Fadi Arouri

 

By: Jamil Hilal

The decision to launch elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories was announced on February 17, 2021. The PLC elections were supposed to take place on May of this year [2021], to be followed by the Presidential and then the Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections[1].

These were to be the third elections for the PLC since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994. The last PLC elections took place in January 2006 and resulted, for well-known reasons, in Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip (GS), and Fatah consolidating its control over the PA in the West Bank (WB).

The prospect of general elections, particularly of the PLC, stirred a great deal of interest and debate in the WB (East Jerusalem included) and the GS, as well as among Palestinians in general.

In total, 36 electoral lists registered formally to compete in the PLC elections. It is worth noting that the electoral system is representational (as based on electoral lists for the entire 1967 occupied territories), and the electoral threshold has been put at 1.5%. This meant – according to recent public opinion polls – that a majority of the electoral lists would not pass the threshold[2]. Apart from the Islamic Jihad, which announced that it would boycott the PLC elections[3], all other political parties and civil society organizations including those on the left welcomed the event.

It was hoped that the elections would pave the way to end the rift between Hamas and Fatah and promote change in policies and leadership. It was also anticipated that they would promote moves by the fragmented left groups to unify.

However, the leader of the PA and PLO Mahmoud Abbas announced the indefinite postponement of the elections three weeks before they were supposed to take place. The reactions to the announcement were met with widespread disappointment and tangible anger. The long-term results are too early to predict, but will likely further shrink the little credibility that the present Palestinian leadership still has.

Sources close to the PA president think that Abbas’ postponement “used Jerusalem as an excuse to delay the elections and protect his position against rivals within his own Fatah party.” The indefinite postponement of the general elections was justified by citing concerns over the voting rights of Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem. A Palestinian official with direct knowledge of election plans was quoted as saying that Abbas was offered at least four solutions to allow the first Palestinian elections in 15 years to move forward instead of shelving them[4].

As for the left, its failure to face the elections with a unified list and program will likely further marginalize its role within Palestinian politics. Five Palestinian left wing or left leaning parties had been in negotiations to run in a unified list, but ultimately were unable to come to an agreement over issues such as their collective attitude towards the 1993 Oslo Accords and the priorities in arranging the electoral list[5].

In fact, the unification of the left was very much needed. As it happens, recent public opinion polls revealed that the left wing/left leaning parties will likely lose some of the seats they had obtained in the 2006 election (9 out of 132). To a large extent, the decline in their popularity is due to their inability to keep up to their goals and principles and implement their agenda. This is together with the failure of all previous attempts to achieve minimum left unity, including that of the National Democratic Union that was formed between September 2018 and January 2019, and collapsed soon afterwards[6]. Furthermore, the 2006 elections’ experience of the Alternative List, which was a coalition formed by three left parties (Democratic Front coalition, the People’s Party, and the Palestinian Democratic Union), and which had obtained 2 seats then, was disappointing as it proved to be a very temporary arrangement that ended with the declaration of the election results.

Palestinians are disappointed by the performance of the left, particularly during the last 15 years that were marked by the divide between Fatah and Hamas. This split had presented a historic opportunity for the left to form an alternative to the two “ruling” parties (Fatah and Hamas) in the WB and GS, and whose political differences have shrank significantly. For example, since Hamas succeeded in controlling the GS, it moved towards accepting a Palestinian state on the occupied 1967 borders. This was at a time when many Fatah leaders had concluded that such a prospect is no longer viable. In addition, Hamas’ slogan of armed resistance has become a mere slogan for legitimating its control of the Gaza Strip, as evidenced in its backing and then controlling of the Return Marches that began in March 2018. The differences and disagreements over political and other matters between Hamas and Islamic Jihad pointed to the merging in Hamas’ standing with that of Fatah.

Meanwhile, the Fatah leadership has failed in its project to transform the PA into a sovereign independent state as it envisaged by the signing of the Oslo Accords. Its strategy of bilateral negotiations with Israel proved to be futile as Israel used it to promote its settler colonialist project. Fatah also failed to regain control of the GS and to resolve its differences with Hamas. It did not manage to put an end to corruption or to at least extract the WB economy from its dependency on Israel. It imposed autocratic rule in the WB and refrained from articulating an alternative vision to the two-state solution[7].

Both Fatah and Hamas failed to stop Arab-Israeli normalization that has heightened the difficulties faced by the leaderships of the two parties regionally and internationally. In general, both political parties embrace the economic and social programs of neo-liberalism. Ultimately, the strategy of popular resistance, which was adopted by all Palestinian political groups (including Hamas and Islamic Jihad), has proven to be no more than an empty slogan.

All the above suggests that the Palestinian subjective conditions are ripe for a radical alternative vision and strategy that only the left can advocate and promote. The fact that 36 electoral lists have registered formally with the Central Electoral Commission is a sign that Palestinians today are looking for a new political vision and a progressive program of action. Only the left can provide such a vision and program as an alternative to that of Fatah’s and Hamas’. A united left with a clear vision and program can win votes from the sizeable percentage of those who decided not to vote because of lack of confidence in any of the parties and groups or in their programs. The left could even win votes from those who would normally vote Fatah or Hamas because no other credible alternative has presented itself.

The Palestinian left needs desperately to maintain more than a symbolic ineffective presence in the Palestinian political arena. If it does not, then it is likely to eradicate its presence within Palestinian political life. This was the fate it chose by presenting itself in individual lists in the May elections that have been postponed.  In order to exercise an influential role, the left needs to recreate itself as a unified body with dynamic and young leadership, and with a historic political and social vision.

Amidst the postponement of the elections, the splinter of Fatah, and the disarray in the political field, the left groups have a new opportunity to achieve a unified front. The suggestion of forming a national unity government, which in effect would be a Fatah Hamas joint government, is likely to marginalize the left more than ever. To put it another way, its presence in such a government would be solely for decorative purposes.

The election process produced surprise for the leadership of Fatah[8]. It has become evident that the central Fatah list would lose seats to the two lists headed by Barghouti/al-Qudwa and by that of Dahlan. Polls have indicated that Fatah’s central list will gain the highest number of votes, but will not be sufficient to form a majority in the new PLC. The two Fatah split factions and Hamas could obtain more seats in the Council. Only the PFLP of the left groups is projected to gain over the 1.5% electoral threshold[9].

Unlike Fatah, Hamas submitted a unified list (titled “Jerusalem is our Goal”) with names of mostly top leaders of the movement. This gave Hamas an advantage against Fatah; an important factor that influenced Abbas’ decision to postpone the elections. His fears could have been soothed had the formation of the joint list between Fatah and Hamas not materialized. Yet this failed largely because of the strong internal opposition from both parties, other political groups and from public opinion, fearing such a move could usher a joint tight control by the two movements.

In 2009, I wrote a book that was published by Rosa Luxemburg; copies of which were distributed to all the left-wing groups. The book analyzed the situation of the left following the Oslo Accords and the second PLC elections in 2006. It also delved into the reasons for the left’s weakness, compared to its role during the First Intifada in the WB/GS. Moreover, it looked into the way out for the left organization– as based on lengthy interviews with leaders and cadres therein[10]. The situation of the left has not changed since then, and might have worsened in fact.

Despite a consensus that fragmentation of the left forces and the marginalization of the PLO institutions (in which the left parties played a tangible role) are a major source of its weakness, nothing has been done to affect change. Since the early 1990s, and more so after the Oslo agreement, the left has lost regional and international sources of diplomatic and financial support due to changes in the worldwide power structures. Leftist groups became increasingly dependent on the PA (and in turn dependent on external financial transfers) with the objective to gain some financial support, and to keep an ineffective decorative presence within the Palestinian political arena. No real steps were taken by the left to articulate a new vision and strategy to make it relevant and effective in the Palestinian political field. Instead, it resigned itself to act as mediator between Fatah and Hamas, rather than forging its own path leading the way towards self-determination, social justice, and freedom.

 


Jamil Hilal

Jamil Hilal is an independent Palestinian sociologist and writer, and has published many books and numerous articles on Palestinian society, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and Middle East issues. Hilal Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor, has held, and holds, associate senior research fellowship at a number of Palestinian research institutions.  His recent publications include works on poverty, Palestinian political parties, and the political system after Oslo.  He edited Where Now for Palestine: The Demise of the Two-State Solution (Z Books, 2007), and with Ilan Pappe edited Across the Wall (I.B. Tauris, 2010).


Rosa Paper is a collection of analyses and relevant viewpoints irregularly published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan. The content of Rosa Papers is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan.

The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is one of the major institutions of political education in the Federal Republic of Germany. it serves as a forum for debate and critical thinking about political alternatives, as well as a research center for progressive social development. It is closely affiliated to the German Left Party (DIELINKE).

The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung has supported partners in Palestine since 2000, and established the Regional Office in Ramallah in 2008.Today, the office is in charge of project cooperation with partners in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip as well as in Jordan.


[1] Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued on Jan. 15 a presidential decree setting the dates for the elections (legislative, presidential, and PNC), which were supposed to be held successively, between May and August 2021. (https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/02/palestinian-islamic-jihad-boycott-elections-hamas-iran.html#ixzz6sqOJu5QF).

[2] See for example: Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey, Public Opinion No. (79), 23 March 2021. (https://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/837).

[3] The statement issued by the Islamic Jihad movement explained that it is not taking part in the legislative elections because they are held in accordance with the Oslo Accord. Islamic Jihad is the only Palestinian movement with a popular presence to boycott the legislative elections for three consecutive rounds. Fatah took part in all the three rounds, while Hamas boycotted the first round in 1996 and participated in the second in 2006, and announced its participation in the third round this year. (Al-Monitor, February 17, 2021).https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/02/palestinian-islamic-jihad-boycott-elections-hamas-iran.html

[4] See: Middle East Eye, 30 April 2012, (https://bit.ly/3hfWwIO). About 60 Jerusalem residents declared their intent to run for the PLC elections, and roughly 156,000 Jerusalemites are eligible to vote. Israel arrested a third of the elected legislators, and six remain in prison today.

[5] The left groups entered the elections with three lists. One list was formed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) headed by the party’s general secretary (Ahmad Saadat) who is serving life imprisonment by Israel. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) entered with a list named “Democratic Change List”; the first and third names of whom have been imprisoned by Israel. Two left-wing parties (the Palestinian People’s Party and Palestinian Democratic Union Party “FIDA”)  formed a joint list named “United Left List” headed by an activist from Jerusalem. The Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) formed its own list. The Initiative does not present itself as a left wing party.

[6] See Hamada Jaber, “Forces of the ‘Left’ Between the Struggle for Survival and the Search for an Effective Role in Palestinian Politics.” Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), Critical Policy Papers, No. 3/20212, March 2021. (https://www.pcpsr.org/ar/node/836).

[7] Palestinian support for the two-state solution has decreased from 55% in 2011 to 39% in 2020 despite the support it has from all Palestinian parties and movements (including Hamas, and with no objection from Islamic Jihad). Support for the one-state solution in historic Palestine, with equal rights for all its citizens, has risen from 27% in 2011 to 37% in 2020, despite the fact that no Palestinian party or movement has adopted this solution.

[8] Fatah produced two competing lists with the Fatah central (supported by Mahmoud Abbas): The “Freedom List” led by Marwan Barghouti (represented by his wife, Fadwa) with Nasser al-Qudwa who was expelled from Fatah Central Committee. The second list, named the “Future List” (supported by Mohammed Dahlan – also expelled from the Central Committee, was headed by a Jerusalem intellectual). The central Fatah list (registered under the name of “Fatah List”) is headed by Deputy Head of Fatah Mahmoud Alloul.

[9] See poll issued JMCC –Jerusalem on April 20, 2021 and conducted between the 3rd and 13th of April. (http://www.jmcc.org/documentsandmaps.aspx?id=892).

[10] A summary in English of the book can be found in Jamil Hilal, “The Palestinian Left and the Multi-layered Challenge Ahead”, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Ramallah, April 2010.

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