The elections trap
By allowing people to choose and express their opinions, elections embody a basic human right. Voting is an integral part of democracy, for there can be no democracy without elections. Yet elections alone do not constitute democracy.
Democracy is the best form of governance humanity has developed in which the people govern themselves through majority rule, but ensuring the right of the minority to oppose and express its opinions freely. There is no democracy unless the opposition enjoys the full right to oppose, and unless it has the right to assume power through peaceful and legal means.
Political democracy cannot be exercised nor can the interests, hopes, and aspirations of the people be fulfilled without applying the principles of transition, separation and independence of the three branches of government, freedom of the press, and sovereignty.
With all this in mind, it is easy to conclude that neither democracy nor free and fair elections are possible under occupation, simply because sovereignty is held by the occupying power. An essential prerequisite for elections is freedom, which is lacking if the country is under foreign occupation. When a country is occupied, it is expected of the people to pool all their efforts to defeat and reverse the occupation.
And since fulfilling the goal of reversing the occupation requires the efforts of all the people, there is no sense in dividing them by holding elections, which only deepen rivalries between political parties and factions. That is why no occupied country other than Palestine has ever held elections. This anomaly was only made possible by the 1993 Oslo accords, which damaged the unity of the Palestinian people, their land, and their cause.
After the PA was established (which involved renouncing the right to resist, the PLO's main source of legitimacy), it became necessary to go to the ballot box in order to endow the newly formed authority with a veneer of legitimacy, otherwise its sole source of legitimacy would have been the Oslo accords and whether the Israeli occupiers were pleased with the nascent PA.
It is only fair to point out that when the late Yasser Arafat signed up to Oslo, he believed that he was choosing the only available means to reverse the occupation and achieving independence. But when the transitional stage ended in 1999 together with the mandate of the first parliament [1996 Palestinian Legislative Council-PLC], he refused to hold new elections believing that to do so would legitimize the occupation, normalize life under it, and portray it as a humane occupation that allows the occupied Palestinians to exercise their rights. Unsurprisingly, Israel agreed for elections to be held, since it was part of a political process that was greatly beneficial for the Israelis.
Arafat agreed to hold elections once only believing that that was the route to statehood. Arafat's mistake however was that he did not link his refusal to hold a second election to an abrogation of Oslo as he could have done citing the agreement's failure to fulfil Palestinian aspirations and the fact that Israel failed to implement many of its key clauses.
Worse, the PLO – as the ultimate political point of reference for the PA – decided to prolong the transitional stage indefinitely. This allowed the first parliament to extend its life to ten years – not the three stipulated by Oslo and its addenda.
While it is true that elections held under occupation only legitimize the occupation, it is also true that an open-ended transitional stage in which the PA remained without a regularly elected parliament that would supervise, legislate, and extend/withdraw confidence in the government lends the occupation even more legitimacy.
After Arafat passed away, and after it was universally acknowledged that the so-called peace process based on Oslo had reached a dead end, choosing a new political path became necessary. Yet instead of charting a new path, Oslo was reinvented by granting the PA and its new leadership a new popular mandate. Thus, presidential elections were held followed by [the 2006] parliamentary elections one of whose aims was to include Hamas in the PA and thus force it to abide by the agreements signed with Israel. The idea was that Hamas could oppose all it wanted, but as a minority (as it was believed that Hamas could not garner enough votes to beat Fatah) it could not reverse the commitments made by the PA.
That was a grave miscalculation. Hamas won a majority in the PLC, which ultimately led to the current split that is set to continue so long as we Palestinians continue to abide by Oslo's unfair and unjust commitments, and so long as Hamas is required to prove that it is 'moderate' enough to become part of the Palestinian body politic. And because of the split and the derailment of the 'peace process,' a third election was not held despite the fact that the president's mandate lapsed four years ago, and that of the PLC three years ago. This raises serious questions regarding the legitimacy of the PA and its ability to survive.
Although the occupation allowed elections to be held in 1996, 2005, and 2006, it nevertheless detained many candidates and prohibited the free movement of candidates between the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. After the last elections, Israel detained scores of MPs and several government ministers some of whom are still in detention to this day. Israel's actions caused the Palestinians to consider carefully how to hold free and fair elections in the future without allowing the Israelis to influence the process.
In this context, holding elections in occupied Palestine in the absence of a political program that can end the occupation, and in the light of Israel's insistence on pursuing expansionist policies, cannot be the key to reconciliation and ending the split – unless the aim is to decide the battle between Fatah and Hamas once and for all, which would only serve to perpetuate the schism.
Holding elections now would be a leap in the dark, and a step to perpetuate the split if they were held without prior agreement on a national point of reference that takes the nation's higher interests into consideration. In other words, if elections were not held as part of the struggle of the Palestinian people against occupation and for achieving their goals of freedom, return, independence and self-determination, the results would be catastrophic.
Elections are only necessary if they serve the struggle against occupation, and definitely not if they are used to perpetuate, legitimize, and normalize life under occupation. In addition, this would be impossible unless elections were held within a framework of national consensus that unites all political factions. For elections without unity can only divide the national movement, while elections with unity can enrich it and enhance pluralism and diversity, the main reasons why the Palestinian cause still thrives despite all plots, massacres, wars, and aggression.
Elections must enhance the unity of the people, which cannot be achieved unless a new Palestinian National Council (PNC) is elected in tandem with a new PLC. Should it prove impossible to elect a new PNC, all efforts must be made to make it possible instead of merely announcing that they cannot be held in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gulf. Another point that must be clarified is whether the elections would be for an autonomous PA or for a Palestinian state.
Until elections are held in which the Palestinian people can express their choices freely, the Palestinian leadership and the various Palestinian institutions can continue to draw legitimacy from what remains of the PLO's legitimacy as well as from a commitment to the aspirations and rights of the Palestinian people, and a commitment to resistance in all its forms.
The legitimacy of resistance is above and beyond that granted by the ballot box, and the legitimacy of the PLO would be far stronger if it embraces struggle than it is under Oslo, which separated the people from their land and their cause, and divided the land into parts, the people into several, the cause into 'causes' that need several stages to fulfil.
In the absence of elections, it is necessary to seek ways to prevent a repeat of the quota system in which the two major factions divide the 'spoils' of government. What could be done is, until new elections are held, introducing precise standards by which the size of each faction is measured (including the sizes of their representations in unions, syndicates, local councils, people's committees, charities, etc., as well as the scales of their participation in rallies and demonstrations, how many martyrs they gave and how many prisoners each has in Israeli jails, etc.). Power could then be allocated accordingly.
Fateh was considered to constitute the majority without elections, because it used to resist Israeli occupation, embody the Palestinian identity, and was committed to the Palestinians' aspirations and rights. But this does not belittle elections as a means of representation.
But if holding free and fair elections were deemed impossible, and if holding them requires the approval of the occupation and the fulfilment of all or some of its conditions – or if holding elections would serve the occupation's interests – then we would be better off without elections.
It would be far better to seek national consensus based on a program of struggle that embodies common goals, focuses on resistance and all forms of political action, and deals with elections as just another form of struggle against occupation.
[UK academic] Professor Mushtaq Khan once said, 'If freedom, democracy, elections, development, and reform were possible under occupation, why would occupied peoples want freedom from occupation?’