Last Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority postponed local municipal elections to early 2017 after an escalating series of reprisals between Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party in the West Bank and his Islamist Hamas rivals in Gaza ended in a stalemate. The local elections would have been the first since 2012 (when Fatah ran unopposed in the West Bank) and the first democratic contest between Fatah and Hamas since the latter’s victory in the 2006 legislative elections. Instead, the elections, originally slated for October 8, were delayed, then proposed in the West Bank only, and then finally postponed for four months. Such is the state of the Fatah-Hamas rivalry that both parties view even local city council elections as too risky to countenance.
The latest breakdown between Fatah and Hamas should remove any doubt about the potential for reconciliation between the two largest Palestinian political parties. Both sides viewed the municipal elections as a zero-sum contest. Abbas and his Fatah party feared the Gaza-based Hamas party winning any city councils in the West Bank, and Hamas feared the same for Fatah candidates in Gaza.
Fatah officials, in particular, had every reason to be on edge. The party has suffered embarrassing defeats in almost every popular election for a decade. A devastating loss to Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections led to the 2007 civil war that divided the Fatah-led West Bank from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Since then, Fatah has seen its popularity diminish in everything from routine polls to student elections.
The first municipal elections in nearly three decades took place shortly after former PA leader Yasser Arafat died in November 2004. The elections were scheduled to take place over several rounds, with the first round occurring that December. Although Fatah won the first round, Hamas gained control of several Gaza Strip village councils and won nine municipalities to Fatah’s fourteen. Fatah won the next two rounds, but Hamas’ success in major towns—such as Qalqilya in the West Bank and Rafah in Gaza—shocked Fatah. By the won 73 percent of the votes in the remaining municipalities. When the final votes were tallied, Fatah’s anticipated blowout was closer to a narrow victory.
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