Palestine’s Youth and the 2021 Elections: The Burden and Responsibility of Choice

After 16 years in office, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on January 15, that the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in May and June of 2021. The announcement was widely welcomed and celebrated by various sectors of Palestinian society, particularly by youth and women, the excluded and marginalized majority of Palestinians. With good spirits we celebrated this announcement, and I dare say that most political activists spent a great deal of time daydreaming about that moment when they would actually go to vote, after almost two decades of political paralysis. Young Palestinians were the first to take this issue to social media platforms and to start debates and discussions about the elections, political parties, government performance (particularly during the current health crisis), economic issues, socio-political reality, and many other topics that they deem essential for building a democratic system and state.

Concerns Among the Youth About the Elections

In spite of the positive atmosphere that has swept Palestinian public discourse in recent months, there are still a few concerns among young Palestinians. The main one is the possibility that elections could be postponed or, even worse, be canceled due to technical and/or political reasons. For instance, even if we were to assume that Fateh and Hamas miraculously overcome all differences and somehow form a joint list, the Israeli government will most probably oppose it and do whatever it takes to stop the Palestinian elections before they even start, despite the fact that the Palestinians have categorically refused the idea of a joint list. The fact that Hamas leaders have not yet accepted the Quartet’s conditions provides the Israeli government with the “legitimacy” to oppose elections on our side, using the involvement of Hamas as a pretext.

However, there are also a few concerns at the local level: the possibility that powerful individuals and groups in the country may try to manipulate elections, either to change results or to discredit the whole process for their own narrow interests. Youth are worried that the political parties would exclude them from the election lists, and although politicians and partisan activists are currently paying lip service to youth involvement and inclusion, the question remains: How, or in what capacity? Youth debates and discussions are crucial for addressing these legitimate concerns and raising public awareness about them, as they ultimately create the needed public awareness and collective action.

Attempts to Prevent Youth from Expressing Their Views

Palestine has been living in a state of emergency since 2003, and it was made worse in 2007 with the Hamas-Fateh dispute over the results of the 2006 elections. Since 2003, successive cycles of violence and political upheavals have deprived Palestinian youth from the needed context to grow and rise as future leaders. Also, some of the laws that were passed in recent years without consulting the legislative authorities have limited our young people’s ability to express their views freely. For example, on June 24, 2007, the Palestinian president passed the Cybercrime Legislation Number 16, allegedly to protect citizens’ security in the digital world, but it ultimately served to silence young voices calling for action to alter the status quo. Passing such laws infuriates Palestinian youth, since they are the active majority on social media and feel a dire need to express themselves and to protest against the harsh socio-political and economic reality. This law may be the most obvious example of how the Palestinian leadership has succeeded in distancing Palestinian youth from the socio-political context and depriving them of the opportunity to build their capacity and enhance their skills through activity and experience.

It was a refreshing sight to see the number of young people who quickly got involved in the public discourse about the elections and democracy, as it clearly shows how the young Palestinians are eager to exercise their rights and to have a say in their future. However, there are a few concerns related to youth performance in the upcoming elections, particularly due to the lack of previous experience with elections. Also, the complicated socio-political and economic reality could push them toward supporting certain candidates based on the same old and obsolete criteria.

Encouraging signs of youth participation

In 1996, Palestinians chose Fatah because the late Arafat was very popular at the time; he was a symbol of national struggle. After years of stumbling, Fatah wasn’t able to end the occupation or to achieve independence. In 2006, Palestinians were angry with Fatah’s performance and wanted to punish its leadership by voting for Hamas, hoping to end corruption and open a new page in the Palestinian struggle against the occupation and injustices. In 2017, there was another shift, during the local Governorates (districts) /Municipalities elections when Palestinian independent lists won 65% of seats, although only 53% of the entire society participated in those elections. it is worth mentioning here that young Palestinians were very active during those elections. Their performance demonstrated confidence and dedication; and won them recognition and respect in their communities. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCSR) conducted a survey in 2019 that showed that 79% of the Palestinian people encourage the participation of independent youth lists in the upcoming elections. This is significant, especially coming from a patriarchal society where the social, cultural, and even the religious structures exclude and marginalize youth.

The shift in the national attitude toward young people is a valuable opportunity for them to invest in the newly found trust they have achieved, but it is also a heavy responsibility and burden. Young Palestinians already took the first few steps in the 2017 elections when they protested against corruption by voting for independent lists, which won them the recognition, status, and respect that they need. The 2021 parliamentary elections are another opportunity for the youth to prove that they can also overcome patriarchy, tribalism, partisan politics, and narrow personal interests, and that they are conscious citizens who are fully aware of the importance of their role and contribution to democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law.