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Why Hamas rejected amendments to local electoral law

The Palestinian government is seeking to amend the current electoral system, while Hamas claims that such changes will strengthen Fatah’s grip on the Palestinian local scene.
Palestinian policemen stand guard outside the headquarters of  the Central Elections Commission in the West Bank town of El Bireh August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman  - RTX2LI47

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — At the end of October, the Palestinian government expressed its intention to amend the local elections law and the electoral system, turning it from a closed proportional list to an open proportional list system, after the failure to hold local elections, which were slated for Oct. 8. This raised a debate among Palestinian factions and local bodies about the motives, objectives, reasons and timing of this move.

The Ministry of Local Government held dialogue rounds in Ramallah from Oct. 31 to Nov. 9 with representatives of factions, such as Fatah and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and civil society institutions to discuss the proposed electoral system.

Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud Aloul said during one of the dialogue sessions that his movement approves the amendments, while DFLP Deputy Secretary-General Qais Abdel Karim (Abu Laila) stressed the need to reach consensus with all Palestinian factions before amending the local elections law.

On Oct. 4, the government announced the postponement of the local elections after the Supreme Court of Justice in Ramallah decided Oct. 3 to conduct local elections in the West Bank without Gaza, due to the lack of legitimacy in Gaza’s courts. This court’s decision came after the court of Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, decided Sept. 8 to reject the registration of nine Fatah lists in the Gaza Strip because some lawyers, who are believed to be affiliated with Hamas, lodged an appeal against candidates on the lists.

Local Elections Law No. 10 of 2005, currently in effect, allows rejecting the registration of electoral lists if a candidate violates the terms stipulated under Article 18 of Chapter VI. According to these terms, a candidate should not be indicted by a felony against honor or a crime, and should reside within the local community in which he is running. Fatah’s candidates did not meet these conditions, which explains the appeals filed against them in the Gaza Strip.

The current electoral law is based on the closed list system, according to which the seats won by the list will be allocated to the candidates who were positioned highest on this list.

Undersecretary of the Ministry of Local Government Mohammed Jabarin told Al-Monitor that the proposed amendments to the law include not disqualifying an entire electoral list of candidates in the event that one of them loses in the elections; in this case, a special court will be formed to consider any appeals against candidates or electoral lists.

He said, “The proposed amendments are based on the voter choosing one candidate from one list, without having the right to choose among different lists. The position of each candidate within their list is determined according to the votes they reap. A vote for one candidate is considered a vote for the entire list, and thus the list shall get a number of seats that is equal to the number of votes its candidates obtained.”

Jabarin further explained that these are positive amendments, as they force each party to submit a list of candidates from all political inclinations, not only candidates from the party itself, to guarantee a greater representation “because the voter would then show support to a certain list not for its electoral program, but for the candidate they prefer; and thus we would get a greater political pluralism in any elected local council.”

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem stressed that his movement rejects all these amendments, saying, “This change to the law is rejected in form and substance because it is not based on national consensus.”

He told Al-Monitor, “In principle, the elections should be held according to the law in effect. All these attempts to amend the law are to tailor the elections according to Fatah’s preferences in order to ensure victory in future elections after … some of Fatah’s lists were rejected for the October elections.”

He explained, “This amendment is tampering and manipulating the Palestinian laws and harming the democratic process. … No real electoral process can be achieved after such a procedure.”

Maryam Abu Daqqa, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told Al-Monitor that the PFLP also rejects any amendment to the election law without a national consensus.

She said, “The Palestinian arena cannot handle more factional disputes. We want democracy and partnership to prevail among Palestinians, and we will not accept decisions made by one party alone.”

In response to Hamas’ rejection of the amendment, Amin Maqboul, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas’ rejection is proof that it is the one wishing to hold elections according to its own preferences,” denying that his movement had exercised any pressure on the government to change the law.

He added, “We welcome these amendments because they are important and will guarantee a high level of democracy in future elections, as they address the problem of rejecting the registration of a list if one of the candidates faces an appeal. It makes no sense to reject the registration of a 15-candidate list simply because one of them violates the terms of the law.”

Jabarin denied that amending the current electoral system was to protect Fatah in future elections, saying, “The idea to amend the electoral system is not new. On Oct. 5, the Ministry of Local Government announced that it was conducting a study to change the electoral system, before setting the election date on Oct. 8, but there was not enough time to make these modifications. But after the government postponed the elections, we decided to put forward our proposal again.”

He stressed that his ministry has been holding dialogues with most factions and will soon meet with Hamas and the PFLP as well, to reach a formula agreed upon by everyone. He said, “The dialogue sessions in this regard will continue until the end of the year, and the formula will then be adopted by the Cabinet, even if Hamas and the PFLP continues to reject these amendments.”

Talib Awad, the head of the Arab Democracy and Electoral Monitor (Al-Marsad) in Ramallah, believes that the amendments carry several disadvantages — most importantly, they deprive the voters of their free choice and force them to choose a single list, even if they do not support some of its candidates, while preventing them from choosing candidates they see fit in other electoral lists.

Awad told Al-Monitor, “The proposed amendments may lead to the growth of ideologies that favor familial or tribal connections. In addition, voting for a single candidate reduces the chances of women winning, since voters are more likely to vote for a male candidate instead of a female one.”

Despite all efforts to amend the local elections law and the dialogues convened by the Ministry of Local Government, Hamas’ approval is a key factor to ensure the success of any unified electoral process in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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