Shoppers were thin on the ground in midtown Nablus early this week. With employment scarce, many stores saw a few men gathered around a small table with coffee and tea. A few meters away, in the main square, hung posters of candidates for the elections to the city council – men of all ages wearing tailored suits, women running on various slates, all promising the city residents a better future.
The billboards try to persuade as many people as possible to vote in the upcoming municipal elections in the West Bank on Saturday. This is the second round of election elections, to be held in the large cities – Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah and al-Bireh, Nablus, Jenin, and more – after elections were held in smaller towns two months ago. In 23 of 50 municipalities, one agreed-upon list was submitted, so the elections in those places will be a mere formality. The other 27 municipalities have over 200 slates vying for council seats. The one managing to form a coalition with a majority on a city council also gets the mayoralty.
According to the Palestinian model, which has adapted models from around the Arab world, mayors answer to district governors, who are appointed by the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Unlike municipal elections in Arab localities in Israel, where participation can top 95 percent, the West Bank can only dream of such figures. Nablus expects no more than 30 percent, which would be an improvement over the previous elections, in 2017, when only 18 percent of eligible voters bothered to come to the polls.
“The indifference is no coincidence,” says Kamal Zarifi, as he surveys his green almond stand in midtown Nablus. He is associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and used to be a well-known field operative in the local landscape. “There were times when it was a struggle for presence by clans and factions,” he says. “Now it’s different. I’m a father to four young men, all eligible to vote, but when I talk to them about the elections they look at me like I’m delusional. It doesn’t interest them at all. ‘Nothing will change whether you vote or not,’ they say.”
Zarifi thinks that improving local government is nothing to be scoffed at. “Anyone examining the Palestinian arena understands that there is a diminishing in the power of the factions and their power on the streets is eroding,” he says. “That’s why it’s important for there to be a young and dynamic leadership on the local level who can fill the vacuum during a leadership crisis like we’re experiencing today. Unfortunately, most of the candidates are representatives of families and clans who are more bureaucrats than leaders,” he says.
Abd al-Rahman Qusaini, a veteran Palestinian journalist, says the lack of enthusiasm for the municipal elections reflects disappointment with the democratic process. “You have to remember that last year, ahead of the planned elections for parliament and the presidency, more than 85 percent of eligible voters registered to vote,” he says. “This means that there is a great desire to make an impact and bring change. The elections were postponed indefinitely. This caused great disillusionment, and now they expect the public to vote in the municipal elections. The Palestinian public wants real and comprehensive change, not just to elect representatives for local government with very limited powers. We are not in a normal situation. We are an occupied people and Israel controls most of the space of our lives.”
Prominent factions in the West Bank that are rivals to Fatah, most notably Hamas, aren’t competing in these elections directly, but the lists feature known members or people associated with the organizations. A field operative associated with Hamas in Hebron confirms this. “There are lists that are supposedly independents, but the candidates on them are known Hamas operatives, and other Hamas operative encourage people to vote for them,” he says. “It’s sort of a message to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority: We’re on the ground and active. If you prevent us from political activity on the organizational level, at least we’ll send representatives to local government.” He adds that beyond this message, they have no real desire to control the city. He says that “they don’t want to deal with civilian issues. They have enough running the Gaza Strip.”
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The participation of Hamas members has created struggles for power and control in recent days. In the city of Hebron, which has the most eligible voters – some 105,000 – residents are detecting indirect Israeli involvement, manifested in arrests of candidates associated with Hamas or other factions. Hamas accuses the PA of pushing for this, but there is no direct evidence. Hamas also claims that Fatah is pressuring residents who have election influence to support its candidates. “There are quite a few ways to do it. It can be launching a tax audit, or canceling a permit to enter Israel. Everything has become legitimate,” says a Hamas member. “There is also influence by businessmen and the rich. It’s a mixture of pressures, creating an atmosphere similar to elections in Arab countries – capital and political power and brute force to promote candidates.”
Another prominent issue in the upcoming elections is the presence of women in all the slates. According to Palestinian law, at least 20 percent of a slate’s spots are reserved for women. This is the result of work by Palestinian women’s organizations to encourage female representation and to affect who parties place on their slates. Several municipalities have at least one slate headed by a woman, and some consisting solely of women candidates. In Ramallah, one of the major ones is headed by a woman.
Sama Aweidah, a feminist activist and director of the Women’s Studies Center group in Ramallah, qualifies the sense of achievement. “In some cases women were forced to resign their candidacies,” she says. “I really hope that the trend will change in the upcoming elections in terms of the quantity and quality of representation.”