August 12, 2010.
HANNA NASIR, the head of Palestine’s Central Elections Commission, is not prone to expletives. But the Christian nuclear physicist and former dean of Palestine’s leading university was full of them when the cabinet of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who runs the West Bank, recently cancelled the municipal elections he was organising.
If anything, his rival prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, is even less keen to put his movement’s popularity to the test.
It was the third election the Palestinian Authority (PA) has annulled in less than a year. The terms of the PA’s presidency, parliament and municipalities have all now expired. With no date for fresh polls and in constitutionally uncharted waters, officials increasingly rule by fiat.
How far, bemoans Mr Nasir, has Palestine fallen from the heights of 2005 and 2006, when he ran elections that international observers hailed as being among the fairest in the Middle East.
Instead of building a democratic state, the PA is fast on its way to creating just another Arab autocracy.
Western governments which bankroll it do not seem unduly worried. Most of them view the PA as a necessary bulwark against an Islamist electoral tide, which in 2006 swept Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, into power in the Palestinian territories.
Instead of accepting the Islamist victory, Western governments diverted funds from the PA’s democratic institutions into the PA security forces under the control of Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s previously (and fairly) elected president, whose secular Fatah party Hamas had beaten in the 2006 general election.
When, the year after, Hamas chased Fatah out of Gaza, Western governments invested in an unelected emergency government established in the West Bank under Mr Fayyad, a technocrat appointed by Mr Abbas though not in hock to Fatah. Western governments have hailed Mr Fayyad for his efficient rule.
In contrast to Yasser Arafat, the PA’s capricious but charismatic first leader, Mr Fayyad has made the wheels of bureaucracy turn smoothly. His well-managed service-delivery is lubricated by Western largesse but also by the collection of electricity bills.
Still, a growing chorus of Palestinian sceptics say they have yet to see evidence of the institutions Mr Fayyad has promised to build. Nor do they see tangible signs of his promised state. Palestine’s biggest symbol of sovereignty, its parliament, has been emasculated. For three years Mr Fayyad’s government has rebuffed efforts to revive it and put legislation to parliamentary scrutiny.
“The focus on Fayyad’s personal virtues has obscured a series of unhealthy political developments, and mistakes honest administration for sound politics,” says Nathan Brown of George Washington University in Washington, DC.
The result is that in both Palestine’s cloven halves, governance is remarkably similar.
Both Hamas and Mr Fayyad rule by decree, merging executive and legislative arms into one. Both promise elections sometime in the future but in the meantime round up their opponents and silence unlicensed independent media outlets.
As a signal of their intention to rule without the restraints of impending elections, Mr Fayyad has a two-year plan for government; Hamas has a ten-year one. Both try to replace popular participation with populism. Mr Fayyad ostentatiously parades in public, telling his people not to buy products made in Jewish settlements in
the West Bank. Mr Haniyeh, his Hamas counterpart in Gaza, takes to the pulpit in mosques and personally dishes out dollars to his beleaguered people.
In both parts of the Palestinian territories, most people accept their rulers’ decrees without a murmur, for fear they may otherwise be thumped.
If they are lucky, dissenters are invited to tea with local intelligence officers. Repeat offenders are sent to prison. Applicants for a government job, such as a post as a teacher, must get a certificate of good conduct – in the West Bank from local security officials and in Gaza from the local mosque. So most people are wary of stepping out of line.
But such constraints have sown apathy in both Palestine’s halves. The main political factions either boycotted Mr Nasir’s local elections or were too disorganised to mount effective campaigns. Protests after their cancellation were meek and brief. Opinion polls say most Palestinians are more or less willing to put up with their muzzled lot, since they have been exhausted by their own intifadas (uprisings), by Israeli repression and by periodic chaos.
Western policymakers, now straining to get direct talks to resume between Israel and the PA, with luck in the next few weeks, seem in no mood to promote a new round of elections that could lead to another triumph for Hamas. Fatah, the
faction they favour, is fractious and disorganised. Faced with Egypt’s proposal for a new caretaker government to succeed the rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza and to prepare for elections there, the American administration and the European Union have both balked.
“The last thing many in Europe want is for Hamas to regain an executive role in the West Bank,” says a European official.
“We prefer division and no elections to reconciliation and elections.”
Instead, some appear to favour grafting the model that prevails in Jordan, where King Abdullah intermittently suspends parliament and rules by decree, but maintains stability, refuses to threaten Israel and listens as keenly to his foreign backers as he does to his own people. Egypt may even have urged the PA to halt its local elections.
But such regional policies have drawbacks. Keeping the status quo means putting off the task of reuniting the West Bank and Gaza and building a single Palestine state. With scant hope of peaceful change through elections, challengers inevitably consider other, more violent, options.
“We had a choice of seeking power by democracy or revolution,” says Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza. Like most Palestinians, his faith in democratic change has been undermined by Western-backed efforts to overturn or ignore the results when Hamas won in 2006. The ascent of Mr Fayyad, whose party won only two of the Palestinian parliament’s 132 seats in that election, has taught other aspirants that the ballot box is not the only way to the top.
Mr Fayyad is only 58, but his list of rivals, some of them armed, is long. And contenders are already baying to replace the PA’s increasingly frail president, Mr Abbas, now 75, who often says he wants to step down. Succession in Palestine may yet come by appointment, palace coup or something even bloodier, rather than by the ballot box.