On Sept. 21, the Palestinian Authority High Court of Justice announced its decision to delay a ruling on whether to hold municipal elections in the Palestinian Territories until Oct. 3rd, just five days before the scheduled election date.
Previously, the High Court had comprehensively suspended the upcoming elections — what would have been the first to be held in both the West Bank and Gaza in more than a decade, and would have included both parties in a longstanding rivalry: Hamas, which currently governs Gaza, and Fatah, the leading party of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Today was to be the day the court reconvened to determine the future of elections, but has instead decided to postpone the decision — making it unlikely that elections will occur on time.
The elections would have filled local seats in 416 municipal councils in towns and cities throughout the West Bank and Gaza. While the amount of actual power these offices hold is limited, the elections would have been highly symbolic, demonstrating Hamas and Fatah’s willingness to collaborate to build a unified Palestinian civil society. In some smaller municipalities the elections would have likely resulted in governments that would require Fatah and Hamas party members to work together.
Such trust-building actions may have paved the way for successful future presidential and legislative elections.
So, who loses when there is no election? Hamas loses an opportunity to gain significant support in the West Bank, where they are predicted to have grown in popularity amidst growing distrust and internal fracturing within Fatah. And Fatah may lose a similar chance to gain seats in Gaza, where citizens are growing increasingly dissatisfied with poor economic conditions. And a failure to successfully facilitate elections would reflect poorly on Fatah’s capability in a season where their legitimacy is already under question.
But it is the Palestinian people at large who stand to lose the most if elections collapse. Despite claims of disillusionment at existing governmental institutions, a pre-election assessment conducted by the National Democratic Institute reported voter registration numbers that suggest a high level of investment in the election process — 91 percent of eligible voters registered to vote in Gaza, and 78 percent registered in the West Bank.
The cancellation of elections means yet another denied opportunity for the Palestinian community to gain autonomy in the political sphere.
Three groups in particular would be especially impacted should Palestinian Territories fail to hold elections on Oct. 8:
1. Young people
Twenty-five percent of registered voters were not old enough to have voted in the last joint elections in 2006. Citizens under 30 make up the majority of the Palestinian population, and for many this election would be their first democratic exercise, in which they could chose from across the political spectrum.
Citizens of Hamas-run Gaza have not had an opportunity to vote in ten years. While Palestinians in the West Bank have had opportunities to vote in other types of elections, these elections would be Gazans’ first democratic process in a decade.
Candidate lists by law require a certain quota of women to run, but in this election, representation of women on lists is 5 percent higher than the mandatory minimum. In one town in the West Bank, there is a candidate list composed entirely of women, and activists have begun initiatives in support of women candidates in both territories. As 25 percent of the registered voter population, women stand to gain significant headway for future inclusion in government bodies.
So why should we care, especially in the midst of our own volatile election season?
Foundational to the Christian faith is the concept of choice. The ability to say yes or no to God is what makes genuine communion between Creator and created possible — real love requires the existence of choice.
While speaking at a Moral Revival service in Washington, D.C., in August, the Rev. James A. Forbes called voting “a divine sign of our full humanity.” Voting — exercising the opportunity to choose leaders and policies in our and our neighbors’ best interest — is an image-bearing act, an extension of God’s decision to risk granting autonomy to his accident-, failure-, and sometimes wisdom-prone creation.
The idea of fair elections in the Palestinian Territories, and in other places caught internal and external conflict, may be frightening to many Americans. But the opportunity to vote simply gives the Palestinian people a chance to express their God-given dignity. In so doing, it paves the way for a more representative, sustainable relationship with Palestinians in the future.
If our own election cycle has taught us anything, it’s that the voices that go unheard do not simply stop speaking. The Palestinian people are a necessary and vital part in any peace process — their concerns and internal diversity are our worth attention. The flourishing of representative elections ensures a more sustainable partner for peace. Ultimately we, too, lose if Palestinians are denied the vote.
Happy International Day of Peace.