Palestinian local elections have become a democratic necessity in light of the stalemate in the peace process and the erosion of Fateh and Hamas’s political authority
As an independent writer, I was visited by representatives from several countries and organizations called upon to finance the next local elections in the West Bank, writes Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri in the leading Palestinian daily al-Ayyam.
QUESTION AND ANSWER: The question they were all interested in having answered is whether the elections will be free and fair. Would I recommend that they finance and oversee them? And what effect would they have on Palestinian politics and on the process of reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas
I was always of the opinion that local elections are mainly about public services; i.e. their political effects are limited. But holding them is an essential democratic requirement, especially as existing elected local councils have outlived their mandate - and so have unelected ones, such as the councils of al-Khalil [Hebron] and Tulkarm – on condition that fairness and transparency are ensured. Elections must also be held at the same time, and not be split into stages according to Fateh's chances of victory. At any rate, elected councils are better than defunct ones, especially if holding elections in the West Bank and Jerusalem does not rule out holding them in Gaza at some later date.
It goes without saying that holding local elections all at once – after reconciliation is achieved - would be the ideal scenario. But making them conditional on reconciliation means that elections would not be held for a long time to come. Despite this, I have to record a number of serious deficiencies that came to light recently in relation to local elections.
Dates for holding local elections were announced several times only for them to be postponed under the pretext of not undermining reconciliation efforts. The real reason for the postponements however was Fateh's fear that it would not win – despite Hamas' boycott. Fateh fears that a weak result in the local elections would set an example for the next general elections.
A low turnout (because of calls to boycott the elections), a general feeling of despair among the Palestinian electorate, the steady erosion of the PA's authority after the failure of peace talks with Israel, and Israel's determination to continue settlement expansion and impose a fait accompli that makes its own version of a solution the only one possible, have all left Fateh fearful of not doing well in the next local elections.
It is a fact that, for Fateh, no elections would be better than ones in which it fails to win overwhelmingly – or ones which it would be forced to annul at the last minute, which would destroy whatever credibility the PA has left. In other words, Fateh used the elections to serve its own narrow factional interests. When Fateh believes it can win, it calls elections; when it fears that it would lose, it calls them off – especially when leftist factions within the PLO refused to join it in forming a national list that would win the elections by default.
Despite the difficulty of canceling local elections this time compared to previous occasions, it is not impossible, given Fateh's chaotic internal situation especially in such major cities as Ramallah, al-Bireh, Nablus, and al-Khalil.
What makes the possibility of cancellation real is the fact that Fateh has been making (and breaking) election dates without consulting with other factions, Hamas in particular. The way Fateh has been operating is this: a presidential order is issued setting a date, and only then are the factions invited to participate in a deliberate attempt to ignore the split with Hamas and its implications.
It is the clear responsibility of Fateh and the PA to ensure that the upcoming elections in the West Bank are free and fair. They could ensure that by (a) releasing all detainees, (b) promising not to detain candidates, and (c) ensuring that all candidates can carry out their electioneering activities freely and without disruption.
Hamas also has a responsibility. Hamas has been obstructing elections by linking them to the process of reconciliation. It has also stopped the process of voter registration in Gaza, and unilaterally amended the [February 2012] Doha declaration, in a clear attempt to postpone elections indefinitely for factional reasons.
Hamas, which was deprived of its right to rule despite winning the last general election in 2006 and saw its government blockaded and attacked, forcing it to mount a  coup in Gaza, does not want to hold elections before its chances of winning improve.
In short, local elections are seen by one faction (Fateh) as a means to consecrate the split, while not holding them is seen by another (Hamas) as a means to perpetuate its rule. In either case, elections are the victim rather than a tool for democracy and fighting the occupation, and a means for the Palestinian people to express their free will.
Presidential and legislative elections must be linked to the process of reconciliation. These are politically-oriented elections that cannot be held without the participation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including Jerusalem). But this does not apply to local elections.
If Hamas is so opposed to elections unless reconciliation is achieved, why has it been participating (on and off) in students' and trades unions' elections? Hamas takes part when it believes it would win, and boycotts elections when it believes that its chances of winning are slim. While repression must be lifted if elections are to be free and fair, it is important to note that repression often serves the interests of the repressed party.
Hamas must understand that its lack of popularity is not down to others but to the example it set in Gaza. It is because it monopolized power and excluded others that people are unlikely to vote for it.
The next local elections – if they are held – would be extremely important politically if only because they would coincide with an escalation in the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. Israel is trying to reshape the PA in its own image such that it accedes with whatever the Israelis dictate.
Israel has been threatening the PA, and trying to weaken it and turn it into a proxy for the occupation. Recent steps taken by Israel, such as raising the profile of the civil administration, Israeli FM Lieberman's threats to President Abbas, increasing the number of Palestinian workers allowed to work in Israel, and issuing large numbers of visitors' visas to Palestinians, all show that Israel is trying to bind the Palestinians to it to the detriment of the PA, making it easier to dispense with the PA if necessary.
In this context, and with the collapse of the peace process and the continuation of the Fateh-Hamas split, elected local councils would be very important indeed. They would be the only legitimate and elected Palestinian bodies, and their importance could only increase if the split continues and/or if the PA collapses or is disbanded.
That is why it is extremely important that these councils are pluralist and representative so as not to become easy prey for the occupation.
When Israel agreed to local elections in 1976, it was to encourage the establishment of an alternative leadership to the PLO. Israel could well try to use the new elected councils as substitutes for the PA – unless they are truly patriotic and representative.
With all this in mind, I call on Hamas to allow elections in Gaza. Hamas must not boycott the polls, or further perpetuate the split by declaring the Gaza Strip liberated and separate from the West Bank.
Hamas must also take part in the upcoming local elections in the West Bank, after ensuring they are free and fair, in order not to regret having taken part in the creation of weak and pliable local councils.