Elections despite restrictions

In spite of many, many difficulties it appears that Palestinian elections will take place on time. This is quite an achievement. These elections are held under the severest of conditions imposed by the Israeli military occupation.

Restrictions on movement in particular are as draconian as ever. Of all the factors that will make these elections necessarily imperfect, the inability of people, candidates and election workers to move freely from place to place, town to town and village to village has to count as the biggest.

In fact, Israeli practices and discontented Palestinian groups together nearly succeeded in cancelling these elections. Using Israeli closures and restrictions as an excuse, groups worried that they would find themselves disenfranchised after elections maintained that voting could not go ahead. Using the chaos that was created by some armed elements associated with these groups, Israel only tightened its restrictions.

Indeed, the closure on Jerusalem almost served the purpose of those in Palestine who, only a few weeks ago, seemed determined to prevent elections. Certainly, the performance of President Mahmoud Abbas must be commended in this regard. Facing a Fateh leadership that swung between hesitancy and determination to postpone elections, Abbas made it clear that elections were a sine qua non for future progress and would take place regardless.

He has shown unprecedented steadfastness and should be considered the champion of this election. Israel certainly hasn’t been supportive. Israel has no interest in allowing the Palestinians to be seen as the most prominent Arab democracy, and a real competitor with Israel in this particular image contest.

Thus, and especially in the last few weeks, Israel has tightened restrictions on Palestinian life, including on movement that is essential for free and democratic elections. Recent reports by relevant UN agencies and the periodical monitoring reports released by Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn and his team show a dramatic increase in Israeli restrictions.

Abbas’ absolute insistence on holding elections on time comes from his strategic understanding of how to proceed. When he was elected, Abbas promised to end the chaos and lawlessness that prevailed on the Palestinian street and also end Palestinian-Israeli violence. He made it clear that the best way to do so was to be inclusive. Elections are the most crucial step in this strategy, because it is through elections that the different Palestinian political groups will take their proper place in the system. By doing so, the factions are automatically binding themselves to the rule of the majority and the rule of law.

In the context of the occupation, Abbas has consistently maintained that violence will serve no purpose and the only way forward is through peaceful, political negotiations. His efforts with the opposition factions to negotiate and maintain a ceasefire were also predicated on the holding of free and fair elections open to all parties.

Indeed, Abbas has been remarkably successful in turning violent opposition into political opposition. And this is a victory for the peace camp that very few analysts have noticed. Abbas has succeeded in having all political groups and factions compete politically to win the support of the public within the parameters of the Oslo Agreement and the laws and regulations of the Palestinian Authority that was created by Oslo and on its basis. This is a significant and positive development, compared with the previous elections in 1996, in which almost half the population and the political groups were unwilling to take part.