On January 15, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced that legislative and presidential elections would be held in the West Bank and Gaza later this year.
The decision came 15 years after Abbas was elected for what was supposed to be a four-year term.
After many similar announcements that did not materialize and in light of the PA’s growing authoritarianism, the sincerity of this initiative is questionable. Not only has respect for democratic principles never been a priority for the Palestinian Authority, but the current approval ratings of the PA and Abbas are appalling. This begs the question: why announce an election now?
Over the past four years, the Trump administration has not only cut funding to the PA, but has also shut out Abbas altogether. Since Joe Biden’s victory in the November 3 presidential election, Palestinian officials have been desperate to get into the good books of the new administration. The decision to finally announce the elections is clearly part of that effort.
But impressing the Biden administration is probably not the only reason behind the move. Several national and international actors have also pressured the Palestinian Authority to organize elections. The international donor community, for example, has long been keenly aware that systematically supporting an authority and a president who are more than a decade past their elected term is not a good idea.
For now, the legislative elections are scheduled to take place on May 22 and the presidential vote on July 31. However, there is always the possibility that the PA will delay the elections again, blaming Hamas or Israel.
There is already a big obstacle in the way of the elections: Jerusalem.
In the past, Abbas and other Palestinian officials have said they will not hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza unless Palestinians in Jerusalem are also allowed to go to the polls.
It is unlikely that an Israeli government will allow Palestinian elections in Jerusalem, as that would amount to recognizing a legitimate Palestinian presence in the city, and therefore challenging Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the entire metropolis.
Moreover, the Israeli regime may even try to prevent Palestinians in Jerusalem from participating in the elections by threatening to revoke their residence permits if they do so.
But even if the elections go according to plan, they are unlikely to be free or fair.
Public support for Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza is waning. They do not have a popular mandate and maintain their hold on these territories through authoritarianism and corruption.
Indeed, political opposition has long been suppressed in the West Bank and Gaza. Authorities routinely arrest journalists and activists who question their actions or reveal information that makes them appear oppressive, corrupt or inept. The Israeli regime has also played a large role in this political oppression by incarcerating thousands of Palestinians for “political” crimes and by banning most Palestinian political activities under its illegal military law. The result has been the consolidation of a one-party system in the two territories and the depoliticization of Palestinian society.
It is therefore quite likely that the two parties will reach an agreement to fix the elections in such a way as to allow them to maintain dominant positions in the territories in which they currently govern. Holding an election, given the current status quo, would therefore be contrary to democracy.
Moreover, elections are only technical procedures and are in no way interchangeable with democracy. They take place regularly not only in democracies but also in countries where democratic characteristics are lacking or completely absent.
Palestine, for the moment, falls into the latter category. Therefore, the elections would do little more than support a status quo that does not allow a democratic space and a system that does not seek to produce democratic and representative leadership.
Meanwhile, like Hamas and Fatah, international donors are not really interested in seeing Palestinians democratically elect their leaders. They only care about having a Palestinian leadership that will not push back their agendas. This was demonstrated par excellence in the last Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006 when Hamas won in a landslide. The international community rejected the results of that election and then imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority and refused aid – simply because the Palestinians dared to elect a leadership they deemed inappropriate.
Israel, for its part, has repeatedly demonstrated that it will crush all Palestinian expressions of democracy that challenge its colonial rule and that it will only allow a subordinate Palestinian leadership.
The current upper echelons of the Palestinian political elite are also not interested in a democratic process that will challenge their position and privileges. It is therefore clear that the recently scheduled Palestinian elections are only political theaters to cover the fact that among the main actors there is no interest in promoting a representative and responsible Palestinian leadership and a democratic Palestinian society.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.