On 03 May 2016, the Palestinian Unity Government’s Council of Ministers issued a decision to hold the elections of the local councils (municipalities) on their due date, 08 October 2016, according to the Council of Ministers’ capacity under article 4 of the Local Council Elections Law no. 10/2005. This calling for the local council elections came in view of the presence of a unity government that was formed in June 2014 following al-Shati’ agreement on April 2014.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) welcomes this step and highlights that periodic impartial elections are a constitutional right and a foundation for good governance in which human rights and basic liberties are respected. Furthermore, PCHR calls for offering all the impartial circumstances necessary for holding the elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to achieve the elections’ ultimate aim, which is electing representatives of the people’s will, to guarantee offering public services with more efficiency and impartiality.
This step is significant because it was taken by a government that was formed according to a national agreement in order to assume its duties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the internal split is still present on the ground, it should not prevent the elections. It should rather be a trigger for holding the elections and a good opportunity to activate the unity government’s role in the Gaza Strip, thus, the split will actually come to an end.
Following the Council of Ministers’ decision, the Central Elections Commission (CEC) declared its readiness technically for the elections. On 23 June 2016, CEC approved the elections’ timeline that scheduled the start date, including the candidates’ registration, publishing and objection between 23-27 July 2016, while the candidacy period will be between 18-27 August 2016. The electioneering campaigns are scheduled on 24 September 2016 until Thursday, 06 October 2016, whereas voting will be on 08 October 2016 and the announcement of the preliminary results will be the next day.
PCHR declares through this position paper its attitude concerning the local council elections under four factors: the elections are an international commitment and a lawful right; the conditions necessary for holding the elections; availability of the conditions necessary for holding the elections; and finally a historical background of the local council elections in the Palestinian Authority (PA). The paper ends up with a summary of PCHR’s position and a number of recommendations necessary for a proper electoral process.
Elections are International Commitment and Lawful Right
The people’s selection of its representatives is considered one of the most prominent human rights that is guaranteed in the international conventions, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that is binding to the PA after the State of Palestine Acceded to the Covenant in 2014. Article 25 of the Covenant reads the following:
“Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”
Moreover, all constitutions of countries around the world stipulate this right that is exercised through the elections. The Palestinian Basic Law (PBL) stipulated in a number of articles the principle of democratic representation of the people’s will. Article 2 stated:
“The people are the source of power, which shall be exercised through the legislative, executive and judicial authorities, based upon the principle of separation of powers and in the manner set forth in this Basic Law.”
Article 5 of the PBL reads:
“The governing system in Palestine shall be a democratic parliamentary system, based upon political and party pluralism. The President of the National Authority shall be directly elected by the people. The government shall be accountable to the President and to the Palestinian Legislative Council.”
Article 26 of the same law highlights the right to participate in political life by voting or running as candidates, taking in consideration that the elections are democratic means to achieve the popular sovereignty. Article 26 stipulated: “Palestinians shall have the right to participate in political life, both individually and in groups. They shall have the following rights in particular:… 3. To vote, to nominate candidates and to run as candidates for election, in order to have representatives elected through universal suffrage in accordance with the law.”
Therefore, the elections are an international and local commitment for the PA; it is not a choice to be granted or prevented. The abstention from holding the elections is a violation of the principle that “The people are the source of power” and a clear denial of democracy that is ensured by the PBL in 2003.
Conditions Necessary for Holding Elections
The international standards and PBL identified a number of conditions and standards necessary for holding elections to guarantee achieving the people’s will and peaceful transfer of power. ICCPR set a number of conditions for holding elections according to Article 25 of it. The conditions can be summarized in the following four points:
- Elections should be free and guarantee that voters and candidates participate on general terms of equality.
- Elections should be impartial and free of any suspicion of fraud or manipulation of results. Moreover, the elections should be transparent enough to guarantee this and to gain confidence from voters and candidates in the electoral process.
- Elections should be periodic, i.e. they should be consistently and periodically held (every 4 years according to the PBL).
- Elections should be held by secret ballot. This means that each person can choose the candidate he wants in a manner that guarantees his right to maintain his choice confidential.
Each of the Public Elections Law No. 9/2005 and Local Council Elections Law No. 10/2005 emphasized the same standards. Article 6 of the Local Council Elections Law stipulates that:
“Elections shall be conducted in a free, direct, confidential and individual manner. No vote by proxy shall be allowed.”
The PBL also embeds other rights that are irreplaceable to guarantee the right to vote. The most prominent are the rights mentioned in Article 26, which stipulates:
“Palestinians shall have the right to participate in political life, both individually and in groups. They shall have the following rights in particular: 1. to form, establish and join political parties in accordance with the law. 2. To form and establish unions, associations, societies, clubs and popular institutions in accordance with the law. … 4. To hold public office and positions, in accordance with the principle of equal opportunities. 5. To conduct private meetings without the presence of police members, and to conduct public meetings, gatherings and processions, within the limits of the law.”
In addition, Articles 19 and 27 emphasized the freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of press. Thus, PCHR stresses that the right to vote cannot be applied in isolation from the other rights stipulated in the PBL. Furthermore, existence of a democratic atmosphere that respects all rights and freedoms is a prerequisite for holding elections and not a complement.
Availability of Circumstances and Conditions Necessary for Holding Elections
In light of the absence of rights and freedoms, undermining the rule of law in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, especially after the division in the PA and escalation of violations, a kind of self-commitment to non-legitimate restrictions imposed by the power of security services was created. During the nine years of division, both parties to the division have deliberately and systemically restricted freedoms and confiscated rights, especially political rights such as the right to form political parties and operate them, the right to form associations, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression. The security services have mainly targeted opponents of their political parties, so they managed to almost completely undermine the political activity of Hamas Movement in the West Bank and Fatah Movement in the Gaza Strip. This made both parties lose the ability to hold elections in the areas controlled by the other party in light of such atmosphere.
Moreover, the Israeli authorities impose many obstacles before holding free elections as they impose suffocating restrictions on civilians’ movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli authorities divide the cities and villages of the West Bank into cantons, making the movement between cities and villages very difficult in addition to the Israeli almost daily incursions into the West Bank cities and villages; during which Israeli forces carry out arrests against the Palestinian parties participating in the elections. Furthermore, the Gaza Strip is under a tightened closure that deprives civilians of all their rights, including the right to movement, especially their access to the West Bank. Moreover, the Israeli arbitrary procedures obstruct holding the elections in occupied Jerusalem in addition to the restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities on the CEC’s work; the last of which was preventing the Commission from transferring the updated voters’ data boxes from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. All these circumstances make the practice of the right to elect and be elected very complicated and fraught with risk, putting the idea of real representation of people’s will at stake.
Despite the above-mentioned review, PCHR emphasizes that the call for local council elections is a response to the PA’s legal obligation according to the international and domestic laws to hold elections periodically. PCHR also emphasizes that the CEC is efficient and transparent enough to hold impartial elections according to the transparency principle. Meanwhile, we remind you that the condition related to holding free elections is a prerequisite that cannot be tolerated with or overlooked. The absence of this condition completely distorts the notion of democracy, resulting in an authoritarian regime wearing the mask of democracy, which is the worst common form of governing.
In light of the prevailing suppression of freedoms mentioned earlier in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Israeli restriction mentioned above also, all parties have the responsibility to take measures and be prepared on the national level to guarantee individuals and groups’ rights and freedoms in order to create an atmosphere for the local council elections. This should be done collectively with all local and international parties to reduce the negative influence of the Israeli occupation on these elections.
Local Council Elections in the Palestinian Authority
The elections in the PA were unstable in general, especially the local council elections that has not periodically held, since the Israeli occupation of the west Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. Even after the establishment of the PA in 1994, the PA itself has not been interested in holding the local council elections. Besides, the PA witnessed local council elections only twice; the first time included both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip though it did not include all cities in 2004-2005. As for the second time, it was partially held in the West Bank in 2012.
The last local council elections were held in 2012 in the West Bank without the Gaza Strip. The Council of Ministers in the West Bank took that decision after Gaza government has suspended the CEC’s work in the Gaza Strip. CEC published a statement at that time that “it received a letter from Hamas Movement informing them of its decision to temporarily suspend of the voters’ registration process in the Gaza Strip.” Therefore, the Gaza Strip’s municipalities remained under the administration of non-elected local councils that were appointed by the previous Gaza government following the split in the PA in a clear violation of a constitutional right.
These elections were held three years after their due date in 2009. This was a result of a long series of incidents that were sparked by the bloody internal split in 2006- 2007, after Hamas Movement won the majority of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), one year after the election of the Palestinian President representing Fateh Movement. This created a conflict over powers and was aggravated by the ambiguity of the PBL, resulting in a split in the PA after Hamas Movement took over the Gaza Strip. Since then, the PLC’s role has been suspended and the right of the Palestinian people to presidential and legislative elections that was supposed to be held in 2010 has been denied. Furthermore, the local council elections have been obstructed but then partially held in the West Bank after years of their due date in an atmosphere full of human rights violations and restrictions on freedoms. PCHR refused such atmosphere and has stressed the importance of exercising freedoms as basic condition for holding the elections.
It should be mentioned that the first local council elections were held in the PA came after the PA faced reformative pressures. This reform included the establishment of position of the Prime Minister in the PA. On 19 May 2004, the local elections were announced and divided into five stages in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in condition that it ends by the end of 2005. On 21 June 2004, a presidential decree was issued to begin the process of voter’s registration, which actually began on 04 September without appointing specific date for elections. Following the death of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on 11 November 2004, Rawhi Fatouh, the speaker of the PLC, became the PA’s president for two months until the presidential elections were held on 09 January 2005.
The first part of the first stage in the elections was conducted on 23 December 2004. It included 26 local councils in the West Bank. The first stage was completed on 27 January 2005 by holding the elections in 10 local councils in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the presidential elections were held on 09 January 2005, as a result, Mahmoud Abbas was elected as the PA’s President. On 05 May 2005, the local elections were held in 82 local councils throughout the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), including 6 local councils in the Gaza Strip. On 29 September 2005, the third stage of the local elections were held in 104 local councils only in the West Bank. On 15 December 2005, the fourth stage of local elections were held in 40 local councils in the West bank and the Gaza Strip. However, the fifth stage, which was supposed to include local councils of big cities, was not held and their councils are still appointed by the official parties; such as Gaza and Khan Yunis cities.
Summary and Recommendations
PCHR stresses the importance of holding local council elections and calls upon Hamas Movement to work on its success in the Gaza Strip. PCHR also calls upon the Palestinian Unity Government and Hamas Movement to create an appropriate atmosphere in order to hold periodic, free and impartial local council elections that pave the way to hold legislative and presidential elections, which should have been held in 2010.
Holding periodic, free and impartial local council elections requires creating an appropriate atmosphere and providing conditions necessary for holding them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, starting from political freedoms; respecting constitutional rights and the rule of law and ending with the hard working to guarantee the right to elect and be elected in a democratic and safe atmosphere that guarantees free participation on general terms of equality.
PCHR believes that holding elections requires coordination between the two parties to the division, starting from civil and political freedoms and giving enough and appropriate period of time for all parties to restore their social and political activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to run elections according to the principle of equal opportunities.
While closely following up the declaration of holding local council elections, PCHR believes that these elections constitute the return of people’s will to resolve the conflict between the parties to the division over the legitimacy. Furthermore, PCHR considers that these elections will be a real way to end the internal division, especially if the legislative and presidential elections, which were due in 2010, will be held. PCHR stresses its position, calling for the importance of holding the elections on time, and
- Calls upon Hamas Movement and Palestinian security services in the Gaza Strip to work on ensuring the success of the electoral process in the Gaza Strip, considering it as a constitutional right that cannot be overlooked;
- Calls upon the Palestinian Unity Government and Hamas Movement to not restrict civil and political freedoms and avoid anything that may influence the candidates or voters;
- Calls upon the Palestinian Unity Government and Palestinian security services in the Gaza Strip to put a security plan that guarantees the freedom and security of the electoral process and includes clear standards and principles that ensure free participation on general terms of equality;
- Calls upon the two parties to the division to stop arrests on political grounds or on the grounds of communicating with the other party;
- Calls upon the international Community to pressurize the Israeli authorities to lift the closure imposed on the Gaza Strip, end the restrictions on the freedom of movement in the oPt, respect CEC’s work and stop imposing restrictions on its work and movement; and
Calls for immediately holding legislative and presidential elections that should have been held in 2010, considering this a practical solution to end the Palestinian Authority division.