The Slow Death of Palestinian Democracy

The cancellation of municipal elections in the West Bank marks another setback for democratic institutions. That's bad for Palestinians, and it's bad for peace.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Palestinian municipal elections were supposed to be held last week. Instead, they were canceled. A statement released by the Palestinian Authority claimed the cancellation was "in order to pave the way for a successful end to the siege on Gaza and for continued efforts at unity" between Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and the government in the West Bank.

The cancellation of this election was an unjustified, unlawful, and unacceptable act. It damages democratic rights and makes a mockery of the interests of the Palestinian people.

But this is far more than an internal Palestinian issue. The only lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be based on a settlement negotiated between two democracies — this was the case in Europe, and it will be the case in the Middle East.

The Palestinian struggle for democracy has been long and painstaking. Against long odds, we succeeded in constructing a remarkable civil society in order to survive the oppression of the Israeli occupation and to fill the void left by the lack of a central government. We developed parallel nongovernmental health and educational systems, built 17 universities, and established thousands of local community organizations. We even developed grassroots, community-based rehabilitation programs for disabled citizens, which received worldwide recognition.

The Israeli government has long paid lip service to Palestinian democracy while simultaneously crushing initiatives that produced results it didn’t like. In 1976, then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres offered the illusion of local leadership by launching municipal elections, which were meant to dilute the authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

To Peres’s great surprise, 90 percent of Palestinians voted for pro-PLO, pro-independence electoral lists. Within two years, the Israeli government — that self-proclaimed paragon of democracy — deported the election’s victors and dismissed the councils.

With the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, we hoped to have a true democracy. However, we were forced to endure wild swings between successful popular elections and efforts — both self-inflicted and foreign — to crush our fragile democratic institutions. Palestinians waited until 1996 to cast their votes in Palestine’s first-ever parliamentary election for seats in the newly created Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). I still remember the smile of one woman, a septuagenarian named Fatema, when she told me, "This is the first time in my life I can vote."

But that joy did not last. We had to wait 10 years, until 2006, to hold parliamentary elections again. Although these elections were praised by the world — former U.S. President Jimmy Carter termed them "honest, fair, and safe" — the results were never accepted by Israel or most Western governments because they did not like the outcome: Hamas emerged with a plurality of the seats.  

Even when Palestinians managed to create a national unity government, which represented 96 percent of the Palestinian electorate, we were kept under siege and embargo. This fact contributed to the protracted conflict between Fatah and Hamas, which led to the internal division between the West Bank and Gaza in 2007. It also resulted in the cancellation of the PLC elections that were supposed to take place in January.

This is the context in which one must consider the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cancel the West Bank municipal elections that were scheduled for July 17 — and the willing participation of the United States and European governments in the abrogation of the democratic process.

Most Palestinians accept the impossibility of holding presidential and parliamentary elections without first healing the division between the West Bank and Gaza. It is precisely because of this fact that all Palestinian political parties and civil society organizations, excluding Hamas, agreed on the vital importance of holding municipal elections on time. The only alternative would have been the appointment of new local councils by an executive authority, which itself is not approved by the PLC, thereby further depriving the people of the right to choose their representatives.

We saw local elections as a way of keeping the seeds of democratic principles and systems alive despite vicious internal disputes. Properly contested municipal elections would have been a means to remind each and every authority that they are accountable to the people. It was also intended to promote nonviolent means for resolving internal differences, by giving Palestinians an opportunity to express their interests through democratic means rather than the use of force.

The Hamas government prevented voter registration in Gaza, thus stopping elections from taking place there. At first, Palestinian Authority officials correctly decided to go forward with the elections in the West Bank, providing lengthy explanations for why they would not contradict reconciliation efforts. Many gave speeches lauding the role of local elections in building the state. However, it soon became clear that, though Hamas would boycott the election, Fatah would still face tough competition from unaligned, democratic parties. This was evident in all major cities, including Hebron, Ramallah, and Tulkarm.

Nevertheless, until the elections were canceled on June 10, it appeared that voting would go forward as scheduled. Voter registration took place, electoral lists were formed, observers were chosen — and then, a few minutes before the candidate registration lists were to be closed, the government in the West Bank announced that it was postponing the election until further notice.

So, while the government in Gaza prevented local elections, the government in the West Bank canceled them. This has caused great dismay among the people, who never believed the Palestinian Authority’s argument that the election was canceled for the sake of intra-Palestinian reconciliation.

And, of course, it raises a fundamental question about the meaning of "state-building." Doesn’t this term mean more than new construction projects, big government buildings, and a larger security apparatus?

Isn’t the lesson from numerous failed states throughout the world that what matters most is the establishment of legitimate, representative democratic institutions? Surely this is a significant part of the reason why India and Brazil succeeded while Somalia, Afghanistan, and others have failed.

Our democratic shortcomings should not, however, be used by Israel as an excuse for the continued subjugation of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. This cruel Israeli practice is designed to provide an excuse for Israel’s complicity in undermining our democracy, while whitewashing the greater crimes of its occupation.

Palestinians do not want a state in name only, with a flag and an anthem. We want a sovereign nation — not clusters of Bantustans. And we want a democratic state where we can choose our leaders and our government. We do not want them appointed by foreign powers, who claim to act in our name. A real state requires that people live in freedom and prosperity, with dignity and full rights — and not with constant machinations from one party or another that subverts this process. Such maneuvering only squelches Palestinians’ democratic rights and sets back the cause of peace.

Mustafa Barghouthi is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. He was a candidate for the Palestinian presidency in 2005.