PCHR Holds Workshop “Requirements for Successful Elections and Democratic Revitalization in Palestine”
Date: 21 January 2021
On Thursday morning, 21 January 2021, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) organized a closed roundtable discussion online titled as “Requirements for Successful General Elections and Developing Democracy in Palestine” via Zoom. Representatives of political factions and civil society organizations (CSOs), academics and journalists participated in the discussion.
This panel is held in response to the Palestinian President’s decree issued last Friday, 15 January 2021, to hold general elections in Palestine, including parliamentary, presidential and National Council elections; and it addresses the requirements necessary to successfully hold free and fair elections in Palestine. Additionally, the discussion expanded on the guarantees that ought to be presented by the authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to hold elections in a democratic atmosphere, where everyone equally participates and for a peaceful transition of power; as well as guarantees on periodic elections particularly after the bitter experience the Palestinian people went through since the last elections in 2006. The panel also touched on the challenged imposed by the Israeli occupation on the electoral process and how to mitigate them.
Hamdi Shaqqura, PCHR’s Deputy Director for Program Affairs, opened the workshop by welcoming the participants and stressing the importance of having an inclusive national dialogue. He said that Israeli occupation and its impact on the electoral process is a fundamental issue, particularly its restrictions on the freedom of movement. He recalled the Israeli occupation’s practices in previous elections disrupting the Central Elections Commission’s work and thereby multiplied its burdens. He also said that the workshop aims to conclude on certain recommendations on the requirements for holding free, fair and periodic elections that would guarantee a peaceful transition of power.
Mohammed al-Telbani, a legal researcher, talked about the 2007 law by decree on elections and its amendment as it has not identified the link between a candidate’s failure on a certain list and the failure of the list as a whole. He demanded an explanation for this before holding the elections because any arbitrary reading, as has happened with the local councils’ elections, would lead to a state of political exclusion; thus, failure of a candidate means failure of the whole list. He also called for an amendment to the law to guarantee that this issue is duly regulated.
Jamil al-Khaldi, Director of the CEC in Gaza, welcomed the presidential decree and the agreement behind it. He called upon all parties to join hands and work together to revitalize the electoral process, which has been disrupted for years, as they should have been in their fourth round. He also said that there is a problem about the failure of an electoral list in case one of its candidates fails, emphasizing the importance of finding a solution for it. Al-Khaldi said that the CEC is ready for all the election phases, stressing that guaranteeing a suitable environment for free elections is the most important issue at hand, which is the responsibility of all parties, particularly the political factions, and highlighted CSO’s role in encouraging a positive morale on elections, which is a requirement for free elections in order to achieve the peaceful transition of power.
Kayed al-Ghoul, Member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP’s) Political Bureau, stressed PFLP’s positive position in favor of the democratic choice and wondered if the elections’ issue is purely procedural or political that needs a separate political agreement. He underscored that the long-awaited national dialogue should not be limited to the administrative issues of elections, but more importantly should be about discussing the political consequences and entitlements. He added that addressing the division’s legacy is absolutely necessary and should be included in the comprehensive agreement that included the elections, stressing that there should be clear lines for action at the political level, and efforts should be made to find a common ground and manage conflict via a joint and unifying body. He wondered how the PFLP can be part of an institution that approves negotiations within the current conditions and reality, which violate Palestinians’ rights. He concluded that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) should be the real representative of the Palestinian people, apart from what he described as “the state of individual power” prevailing in Palestinian politics.
Dr. ‘Aaed Yaghi, representative of the National Initiative, emphasized that elections are necessary, and it is the right of the Palestinian people to choose their leadership and representatives just like the rest of the world. He added that the presidential decree is an important stage but not an adequate guarantee for holding elections as scheduled. He expressed his hope that this would be achieved, but it requires going through obligatory stages. He said that we are looking forward to the meeting which will be held between the Palestinian factions to agree on the details and requirements for successfully holding the elections. He emphasized there is an uncertainty about the political dimensions of the elections; will the elections be held according to the Oslo Agreement that was supposedly cancelled? He stressed that we should remain steadfast on the national position regarding the participation of Jerusalemites in the elections.
Amal Siam, Director of the Women Affairs Center, emphasized the significant role of CSOs and political factions in ensuring successful elections. She addressed important points, such as the possibility of holding elections in Jerusalem under an agreement between the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority, but she posed the question on what would happen if Israel declines to cooperate, “Would the general elections be held nonetheless?” She also talked about CSO’s role in observing the elections to guarantee its transparency, suggesting forming a body to carry out this mission. She also called for exerting pressure to have CSO representation in the Cairo meetings; reducing the age limit to run for candidacy as well as the insurance imposed by the law to run for elections and linking candidacy with resignation from public jobs.
Tahsin al-Astal, Deputy Chief of the Journalists’ Syndicate, said that holding the elections in Jerusalem would fail Trump’s attempts to recognize it as the Capital of the Israeli occupation state. He hoped that the Palestinian people’s excitement for the elections would not fade, and that no obstacles would be imposed to fail the electoral process that is necessary for ending the Palestinian division. He also hoped that Hamas and Fatah would succeed in preparing a joint list, which would constitute a real end to the division. He also emphasized that the Election Cases Court should be formed, warning of the possibility of having problems to the likes of those in the 2016 local councils’ elections. He demanded that all armed manifestations disappear during the preparations for elections.
Ashraf Dahalan, Executive Director of the Elections Department in the Democratic Reform Movement, emphasized that the elections are a public demand, but there are uncertainties and fears about the elections’ ability to end the internal division and its impacts; and to reformulate the Palestinian political system. Dahalan also stressed that elections have a political dimension, not only laws and procedures. He wondered if we are going towards elections that strengthen the quota system? or real elections? Dahlan said that with regard to elections, there is confusion between law and politics, as elections in Palestine are not the outcome of a stable legal process.
For his part, ‘Issam Yunis, Director of al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, stressed the importance of discussing the elections process and studying it carefully, especially that elections will be held in the unique circumstances, i.e. a political division. He said that elections are usually held to culminate the reconciliation process, but when Palestinian factions failed to end the division, holding elections was suggested as a solution to end it. Yunis asked if the elections would make the situation more complicated or would it solve it? He added, despite all this, holding elections is a necessity to empower citizens exercising their right to choose and accountability. Yunis called for safeguarding public freedoms, fostering an encouraging environment to promote confidence in the upcoming elections, releasing political detainees, and activating the right of access to information.
Samir Zaqout asked about the real motive for holding elections, although there are many problems and challenges that have not been solved. He also asked another question, why were elections preceded by issuing laws by decree that undermined the independence of the judiciary? Zaqout confirmed two issues: the first concerning the election law and its amendment, as he believes that the new law has not been examined well; the second issue is the definition of the Palestinian person who has the right to vote. Zaqout also said that there are many things that remain unclear, such as the mechanism for choosing the remaining members of the National Council representing the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Zaqout believed that with regard to who has the right to vote is an important national and human rights issue.
For his part, Fayiz Abu ‘Aitah, the Spokesperson of Fatah Movement, considered that the renewal of the Palestinian political legitimacy is an important step, provided that it should be a democratic, free and fair process, stressing that it is a long-awaited entitlement for the Palestinian people. Abu ‘Aitah demanded that the Central Elections Commission be part of the dialogue expected to be held in Cairo, in order to overcome procedural problems that may hinder the elections, as has happened in the municipal elections. Abu ‘Aitah stressed the need for having an honor code between the Palestinian factions to control the electoral process without abuse or assault. He also confirmed the importance of integrating all parties in the elections regardless of the results in an attempt to enhance political partnership.
Maryam Abu Daqqa, a member of the Political Bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, asked about the guarantees needed for holding free and fair elections, mentioning the Israeli occupation as a main obstacle, especially for holding elections in occupied East Jerusalem. Therefore, she called for expecting these obstacles and putting plans in place to overcome them. Abu Daqqa stressed that ending the political division is a demand and need for the public to protect the national project. She added that Palestinian factions have agreed on many matters, which have not been implemented yet. Abu Daqqa emphasized the importance of having an honor code and agreeing on the details of the election process between Palestinian factions, especially the election court.
Amjad al-Shawa, Director of the Palestinian NGO Network, spoke about the unique experience related to holding elections before reconciliation, contrary to what is accepted around the world that elections will ultimately be a political process to end division. Al-Shawa stressed the importance of fostering an encouraging environment for elections and respecting election results. He also called for holding a joint national meeting for all parties, including political factions, civil society organizations and the election commission, to discuss all obstacles, suggest solutions and present memorandums.
Mohsen Abu Ramadan, Director of the Arab Center for Agricultural Development, emphasized that elections are the right to all Palestinians, and preferred if there would be a transitional government responsible for holding the elections, but in light of issuing a presidential decree, we have to deal with reality. Abu Ramadan asked a question about the role played by civil society organizations at this phase to revive Palestinian democracy. He also asked for providing guarantees for elections to be free and fair in an attempt to modify the political options and system. He asked: Will the new political order be on the Oslo Accords approach, or will it challenge American interventions and the deal of the century?
Dr. Salah Abu Khatlah, Commissioner for National Relations in the Democratic Reform Movement, said that he is not optimistic about holding elections, considering that it will be conducted in response to external pressure not for a national demand. He expressed his hope that elections would not be just a renewal of the Palestinian political legitimacy or a quota process. Abu Khatlah has questions about cancelling the list if one of candidates failed. He also has doubts that there are some bodies that seek to exclude some lists by using unclear laws. He confirmed the role of civil society organizations in the next phase to ensure free and fair elections, stressing the importance of access to information.
Dr. Mukhaimer Abu Sa’ddah, a university lecturer, expressed his fear that the elections may complicate the problem instead of solving it. He emphasized that elections should be a means for the peaceful transition of power, contrary to elections in the Palestinian system. He also asked:
Is the failure to end the division a sufficient motive for holding elections? Abu Sa’ddah stressed that this question should be the key focus of all Palestinians in the next phase.
For her part, Andaleeb Odwan, Director of Community Media Center, considered that elections are a right and a duty; she expressed her fears that these elections are ill-intended doubting the true motives for their conduct at this time. Nonetheless, she affirmed that all efforts should be exerted to see that these elections are held. She posed a question on how the obstacles set by the Israeli occupation would be mitigated, especially in terms on conducting the elections in Jerusalem and its political consequences. She considered the elections an opportunity to dust off the Palestinian political system and integrate youth into the democratic process.
Dr. Faisal Abushahla, member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, assured that there is no reason for worry and pessimism towards the elections, as the Palestinian people have positive experiences in terms of elections in 1996 and 2006. Dr. Abushahla supported a joint list for election suggesting a “national list” as a gateway towards ending the infamous division. He also suggested having a Code of Conduct to ensure respect for the election results.
The following recommendations were presented in conclusion of the workshop:
- The importance of having civil society organizations take part in the national dialogue expected in Cairo in order to eliminate obstacles that may arise and finalize on all pending issues.
- A Code of Conduct should be agreed upon by all national and Islamic factions to ensure respect for election results and a peaceful transition of power.
- The need to foster a conducive environment for fair and free elections, including safeguarding public freedoms, ceasing summonses and arrests, and release of all political prisoners in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and to allow the right to access information and stop bickering on media platforms.
- The elections ought to be a stand against the occupation’s practices and policies, particularly the Gaza closures, the restrictions on the freedom of movement in the West Bank, Jerusalemites’ participation in the elections, and the need to have the international community pressure Israel to refrain from impacting or hindering the elections.