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Will upcoming Palestinian local elections pave way for general elections?

The Oct. 8 municipal elections, which will take place throughout Gaza and the West Bank, will be an indicator of which direction the Palestinians want to take; but all eyes will be on Gaza whose residents have not had a voice about their future leadership since 2006.
A Palestinian woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her ballot for municipal elections at a polling station in the West Bank village of Shiyoukh, north of Hebron October 20, 2012. Palestinians voted in local elections in the Israel-occupied West Bank on Saturday, their first vote for six years and one with little choice, out of step with democratic revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world.  REUTERS/Ammar Awad (WEST BANK - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS) - RTR39D2R

In October 2012, a previously unknown English professor was nominated by the Fatah movement for mayor of Bethlehem. Vera Baboun, a mother of five, beat a male opponent supported by the Islamic Hamas movement and has become a well-known icon in Bethlehem and the world. Since her election, Baboun has met Pope Francis, US President Barack Obama and other world leaders, and has attended the annual Christmas Eve mass (held three times on Dec. 24) every year since.

The decision of Fatah to nominate a respected woman rather than the usual party activists was taken as a result of the 2006 parliamentary defeat and the desire to win. But the Fatah movement is more divided now than ever and Palestinian satisfaction with President Mahmoud Abbas is at a low 34%, according to a June 7 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Nearly 2 million Palestinians are eligible to vote in 141 municipalities (local councils) and 275 village councils in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the spokesman for the Central Elections Commission told Al-Monitor by email.

The Palestinian Basic Law calls for municipal elections once every four years, but since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, only two municipal elections have taken place. Gaza and the West Bank held unified municipal elections in 2004, and that was the last time the Gaza Strip has held municipal elections because of the split between Gaza and the West Bank. In 2012, municipal elections took place in the West Bank only.

Gaza-based local activist Samer Tarazi told Al-Monitor that the situation in the Gaza Strip is very complicated. “In Gaza, these elections will do little to change the reality on the ground. People are tired of the current situation and most people will probably favor family or tribal candidates rather than party representatives,” he said.

The possibility of tribal nominees dominating the elections is expected in some of the West Bank cities as well. Riyad al-Halees, a veteran Fatah member from the town of Yatta, told Al-Monitor that he expects electoral lists to be dominated by tribal nominees in his town. “My advice to my own party leadership is to find appropriate local tribal leaders and to reach an agreement with them,” he said.

Halees added that Fatah should negotiate with local leaders by delivering youth voters in return for this “high-level coordination and partnership.” Halees hopes that in return for supporting family representatives, the elected mayors and council will be more attuned to some of the political needs of the Fatah movement.

The fading role of both Fatah and Hamas is also felt in other locations. Palestinian security officials were given a scare after gunmen heavily fired on July 17 at the home of a local resident in Nablus, Mohammad Dweikat, who had plans to run for the city council. The Palestinian security was able to discover and detain the perpetrators within 24 hours.

Fatah activists in the West Bank city of Nablus and Gaza have expressed serious worries about their movement losing the municipal elections because of continuing divisions within Fatah itself. “As long as President Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan are at loggerheads, the chances of success by Fatah in the upcoming elections are scarce while the movement is divided,” a Fatah leader who asked not to be named told Al-Monitor.

Amin Maqboul, the secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor the movement looks forward to these elections and all other elections, even though they are not necessarily a reflection on the political mood of the Palestinians. “Municipal elections are about services and participation in it is not for all. There are no local elections in refugee camps, for instance, since they are not considered local councils and are run by UNRWA. So I don’t think [elections] are a political barometer that can measure political support,” he said.

But at the same time, Maqboul noted that factions will be involved in nominating candidates. “It [elections] will have some indicators as to the public atmosphere such as how strong a turnout a particular party or movement can bring out to support its candidates and affiliates,” he said.

Maqboul worries about Palestinian participation. “Our biggest concern is public apathy and a low turnout in the coming elections,” he said, adding that his movement will set up professional criteria as to which candidates to support. According to him, Fatah will support individuals who "have clean hands and provide popular public services.”

Maqboul welcomes Hamas’ participation in the upcoming poll, but insists that Hamas cannot cherry-pick which elections to participate in. “They [Hamas] choose to participate in student council elections and municipal elections while refusing general parliamentary and presidential elections. This is not how democracy works,” he said. 

Nevertheless, Maqboul hopes that Hamas’ participation in the October elections and the opportunity for Gazans to participate will make it easier to conduct general elections in the near future.

Back in Bethlehem, Baboun is seriously considering participating in the upcoming elections. While she has yet to announce her plans, municipality council colleagues told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that she has made a decision and will run for mayor again.

Regardless of whether the nominees will consist of party members or family/tribal members, elections are a referendum of sorts. The coming months will gauge and reflect the direction that Palestinians will be taking. The fact that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip will be making a choice for the first time since 2006 is very telling. The key question that is on everyone’s mind is whether these upcoming municipal elections will open the way for parliamentary and presidential polls, or if this will be a one-time event.

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