Analysis: Hamas to Participate in Palestinian Local Elections

Palestinian local elections are due to take place in the West Bank and Gaza on October 8th, where ballots will be held in 391 municipalities in the West Bank and 25 municipalities in Gaza. These are, however, no ordinary local elections. In a surprise announcement, Hamas announced they would be participating in these elections and would allow ballots to be held in Gaza for the first time since 2006. This announcement transformed the elections from a low-key local event to one gaining international attention. These elections were last fought in the West Bank in 2012, where Fatah claimed victory after Hamas boycotted the polls and urged their followers to do the same.

The elections are significant for three reasons. First, they will show the direction of Palestinian public opinion. It will be revealing to see what inroads Hamas can make in the West Bank amongst reports of the declining popularity of the Palestinian Authority. Second, the elections could trigger a renewed democratic zeal in the Palestinian public. Whilst the vote will have little immediate effect beyond the provision of local services, successful elections could embolden those calling for new Parliamentary or Presidential elections, which have not been held since 2006. Third, the elections could significantly alter international aid plans. It is highly likely that Hamas-backed municipalities would lose American and EU funding, due to its status as a proscribed terror group.

The elections are more likely to show the weakness of Fatah than the strength of Hamas. Hamas is not openly running its own list of candidates, fearing their arrest by the PA or by Israel, and is instead endorsing individual candidates who are known supporters. Meanwhile, Fatah is suffering from severe internal fractures. In many key municipalities, disaffected members are running on their own independent slates, which could divide the moderate vote and hand key areas to Hamas. In a further complication, municipal elections are often heavily influenced by the power bases of local families and clans, rather than political parties. Palestinian elections are rarely straightforward and this round of voting is no exception.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the very fact that elections are happening is a significant development. Many commentators fear their cancellation due to spiralling costs, a Hamas boycott, or Fatah fears of a heavy defeat. Both Fatah and Hamas have been accused of trying to rig the elections, as a number of Hamas activists were arrested in the West Bank last month, whilst Fatah operatives have not had a free run in Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2006. The election campaigns have, however, already started. In Gaza, Hamas published a somewhat bizarre video showing Gaza as a place of serene beaches, new office blocks, and successful universities, in an attempt to woo voters.