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Local elections in the West Bank: the return of democracy?

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By E. VAN R - October 22, 2012
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Multimedia]
Tags: [elections] [Hebron] [Hamas] [Fatah]

On Saturday October 20th, Palestinians in the West Bank had the opportunity to elect new local councils for the first time since 2006.

Preliminary results indicate that the main political party Fateh had much to give up during Saturday’s elections; Fateh only won 40% of the candidate seats, despite the non-participation of Hamas who boycotted the elections, which did not take place in the Gaza Strip. It was in fact former Fateh members who broke away from the main party to form their own electoral lists who won the majority of seats in the West Bank’s major towns and cities. The leftist and independent parties gained another 20%.

From the 500,000 registered Palestinians who were eligible to vote, 55% took part in the elections, which are viewed as another positive step for democracy in Palestine. However, what is also needed is for presidential and legislative elections to commence which should include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem.

Low turnout

The turnout for the local elections was lower than that of 2006, which was 73.1 %.

This can be attributed to a number of reasons, primarily due to the call from Hamas to its supporters to boycott the elections. When the Palestinian Authority called for elections Hamas responded with the argument that it would only cooperate when the two governments of Gaza and the West Bank are reconciled.

The fact that the current Palestinian Authority is facing a financially difficult time is another reason for Palestinians not to vote. The payment of salaries has been more than once delayed during the last few months due to the economic crisis, which is heavily dependent on foreign aid. No results have been obtained in negotiations with Israel, and no progress has been reached in reconciliation between the Palestinian political parties.

The elections were scheduled in the middle of the olive harvesting season, which coincided with the time of year where Muslims travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the yearly pilgrimage, or Hajj.

Electoral procedures

Palestinian elections take place under the authorization of the Central Election Commission (CEC), which is an independent body tasked with executing, supervising and monitoring all elections.

In these local elections, a voter does not vote for one particular candidate. The political party or faction provides a list of nominated candidates, in which the voter can choose from. The list of candidates differs from 9 to 15 participants.

The names of candidates do not appear on the ballot paper, but are displayed prominently in the polling center. Each list must include one woman in each set of five consecutive names.

The turnout for the local elections was lower than that of 2006, which was 73.1 %

This year 4,696 Palestinians applied for candidateship, of which 1,146 (25%) were women. It is worth mentioning that for the very first time, one list in Hebron consisted of only women.

In total 353 localities in the West Bank participated in the elections. Only in 94 of them could Palestinians choose between multiple candidate lists. In 181 localities only one list was submitted which meant that the seats were automatically elected. In the remaining 78 localities, either no list was submitted or did not fulfill the legal requirements. These districts however will have complementary elections on November 24, 2012.

Two groups of Palestinians were excluded from participating in local elections: refugees, because the UNWRA refugee camps have their own governing bodies, and Jerusalemites. Due to the absence of an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government about the status of Jerusalemites, no elections could be held in Jerusalem.

A point of criticism on these local elections is that people who wanted to vote had to register beforehand. The registration process has been criticized as being superfluous and unnecessary, as all of the required information for voters in included in their IDs.

This explains why only 500,000 of the approximately 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank were eligible to vote. The turnout of 55% means that almost half of the people who registered with the intention to vote did not do so in the end. Taking into account that Palestinians under 18 years of age are not allowed to vote still doesn’t explain why 75% of Palestinians in the West Bank did not vote.
Elections on the ground

The elections and voting procedures were transparent and clearly organized. Most polling stations were in schools throughout the West Bank. The CEC organization was in abundance and visibly present, wearing orange vests to distinguish themselves. Every polling station had multiple voting premises, with one or more observers from the participating parties in that district. People gathered in front of the entrances of the polling stations before the voting began, conversationally talking and maintaining a calm atmosphere.

The majority of voters were men. The highest turnout was in the district of Salfit (76.3%) and the lowest was in Hebron (47.3%).

Violations witnessed, but overall successful elections

These elections didn’t seem to be popular with the Palestinian youth, whose general attitude conveyed that they didn’t feel represented by any of the parties.

20 year old Emad from Hebron was proud he voted, and when asked why he answered: “Just to try my luck, sine it is the first time I’m allowed to vote.”

An elderly man in the old city of Hebron who wanted to stay anonymous explained why he did not vote: “People fill their own pockets, why should I vote to give them money? People promise a lot but once they are elected in the seat, they take care of themselves.”

A woman in her forties cited that the reason she voted was precisely because of the reason that these local elections do not deal with the bigger political issues Palestinians face on a daily basis.

“This is about municipalities,” she said, “so I voted for the party which will provide me with the best services in my neighborhood.”

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the outcome of the elections so far, notwithstanding the boycott of Hamas.

Not everything went according to the rules though. According to the Palestinian electoral law, campaigning was set from October 6th until October 18th. However in front of every polling station in Hebron, supporters of the participating parties were handing out flyers to arriving voters.

In Ramallah, political posters hung at the entrance of polling stations and food was distributed for free. It was also noted that the PA security apparatus was checking the IDs of people outside the polling stations in more than one district.

These local elections were a good step toward democracy in the West Bank. It was what can be called as a “good exercise.” Despite some violations which were observed and will be investigated by the CEC, the elections were well organized.

The next step would be for the two governments in the West Bank and Gaza to reconcile, in order to have fair and democratic presidential and legislative elections in which all eligible Palestinians can vote for the leader and party of their choice.

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