The Palestinian Authority is going ahead with plans to hold municipal elections on July 17. The elections are taking place despite the fact that the de facto government in Gaza has refused to accommodate them in areas under its control. Hamas has also said that it is calling on its West Bank supporters not to participate in the coming elections. The movement, which has yet to agree to the Egypt-sponsored reconciliation plan, says that elections of any kind (municipal, parliamentary or presidential) should only take place after Palestinians are unified.
Supporters insist that municipal elections are apolitical and should not be judged by the same matrix as parliamentary elections. Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority says that municipal elections can take place on a gradual basis, meaning that they may be carried out at a later stage in Gaza, once reconciliation takes place.
One of the indicators of the success of the upcoming elections will be the level of participation. Signs and billboards have already been posted throughout the West Bank, calling on Palestinians to make their voices heard in the upcoming local contest.
Members of the Fateh movement have been working overtime trying to make plans for the municipal lists that will be posted in the upcoming elections. After the defeat in the 2006 elections, which is blamed in part on differences within Fateh and its failure to field good candidates, Fateh says that it will not repeat the previous mistake. The movement leaders say they are not interested in fielding their candidates, but are willing to accept good candidates even if they are not necessarily members of Fateh.
Politically, an argument has ensued as to whether a wide coalition should be formed in major cities. Some argue that the best way to respond to the Hamas position is to present a unified nationalists list. Supporters of this idea suggest that by having PLO lists, Fateh is not seen as monopolising the elections.
A unified list, however, has been opposed by some who feel that it will take away any suggestion of a competitive poll. By fielding PLO lists, the argument goes, most local elections will be seen as unnecessary, with results almost predetermined by politicians in a smoke-filled room, without giving an opportunity to the public to be involved in this democratic process.
With Hamas boycotting the elections, the question is whether Fateh will show discipline and judgment in choosing good candidates and how effective it will be in bringing out the vote. While about 20-30 per cent of the population does not vote in most elections, a much larger percentage of absentees at the poll will be considered a negative signal for the PLO and the current Palestinian leadership.
Local elections are expected to be closely scrutinised by local, regional and international observers. Holding elections at the agreed-upon time will be seen as a vote of confidence for the Salam Fayyad caretaker government. With parliamentary and presidential elections indefinitely postponed, this will be the only measure of the attitude of the Palestinians towards the Abbas-Fayyad policies. In particular, the upcoming Palestinian elections are expected to give further support and legitimacy to the Fayyad government. The current government has made the rule of law and a stable government as its principal pillars. Part of such stability is the ability to hold regular elections.
If elections take place with a big participation, this will give a big boost to the prime minister and to President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinians and the international community will also be looking to these elections to gauge the level of support that Fayyad and his moderate policies enjoy.