Elections in Palestine: Prelude or Ploy?

February 19, 2021 Topic: Palestine Region: Middle East Tags: Palestinian AuthorityHamasFatahIsraelElections

Elections in Palestine: Prelude or Ploy?

Although Palestinian Authority elections are limited in scope, they are simply the most accessible instrument for breaking the authoritarian stranglehold over Palestinian institutions and kickstarting a process of reform that can spread outward.


That is why dismissing PA elections on the grounds that they uphold the status quo is an abstraction. It lacks concrete consideration of how to overcome the status quo in a way that addresses the obstructive power dynamics, and the motivations and interests of those holding the levers of institutional control. Accordingly, change requires replacing the obstructionists in power with reformists. Essentially, there are three ways this could happen: through popular uprising or coup d’etat; by establishing rival institutions capable of usurping the popular mandate; or through elections. Of these, only elections are straightforward, timely, and practicable.

It is true that if PA elections are not part of a larger process of political revitalization and reform then their impact is limited and risks bolstering a dead-end political framework. But it’s also difficult to argue that these fifteen years without elections were anything but disastrous for Palestinian society; or that PLO reform and a strategic shift by the leadership were made more plausible or imminent because the PA was not being legitimized by elections. Rather, the opposite case can be made convincingly, that Fatah and Hamas were able to prolong the status quo and ignore the popular will because there was no mechanism for accountability and no new actors could enter the political arena and challenge the bankruptcy of their ideas.


Given the centrality of the PA in Palestinian politics today, a change in its leadership is likely to have a ripple effect. While the PLO allows Abbas to confer legitimacy on the PA, it is the latter institution that is the real source of his strength and funding. If Fatah and Abbas lose control of the PA, it is quite likely they will seek to change the balance of power between the PA and PLO. Of course, this could take time and more than one election cycle, but it may also kickstart a far more dynamic period in Palestinian politics.

At any rate, if elections are not free and fair, then the results can be delegitimized openly by the public. Plenty of autocrats hold elections, which don’t necessarily equate to legitimacy. Perhaps a stolen election can be a catalyst for collective action; and if political elites are forced to repress civil unrest, it will be an important signal to the international community for whose benefit the elections are being held in the first place. If nothing else, they provide a rare opportunity to unify and invigorate a stagnant body politic, which could be the first step on the long road to freedom.

Omar H. Rahman is a writer, political analyst, and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, where he is authoring a book on Palestinian fragmentation. His writing has appeared in The Washington PostForeign PolicyThe GuardianRolling StoneLawfareVICEQuartzPBS NewsHourAl-Jazeera English, and The National, among other publications.

Image: Reuters.