Voting in the Palestinian territories rarely occurs when it is supposed to, and this year is no exception. One month before local elections were scheduled across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Supreme Court in Ramallah postponed the vote until it rules on two complaints regarding the authority of Gaza’s court system to disqualify candidates and the exclusion of voters in East Jerusalem. Though nominally independent, the court’s judges were appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas, and the decision provides a convenient pretext for the ruling party, Fatah, to avoid an embarrassing defeat at the polls. But with an extensive security apparatus — and with Israel, the United States and neighboring Arab states dependent on Fatah’s continued control of the central Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions — what does Abbas have to fear from Palestinians electing their village, town and city councils? A look back at the recent history of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza sheds light on why opportunities to elect new leadership at the local level can be so important in this context of frozen conflict.
Research on elections in non-democratic countries suggests that single-party regimes can use elections — at the subnational or national level — to strengthen their rule by co-opting potential opposition and cultivating loyal elite networks. However, in the West Bank, these strategies have often backfired for those in control.
Before the creation of the PA, the West Bank and Gaza were directly administered by Israel, and appointed municipal council members largely came from the existing class of elites who had prospered under Jordanian rule. Israel briefly allowed municipal elections in 1972 and 1976. But when Palestinian nationalists swept to victory in 1976, they used their platform to advocate for resistance against the occupation. Several of these mayors were targeted by extremists from the Jewish Underground, and by 1982, all elected officials were replaced by mayors appointed by Israel. However, this electoral experiment foreshadowed the Palestinian national movement’s popularity inside the territories, which aided grass-roots mobilization efforts during the first intifada, the first major uprising against Israeli rule.