Palestinian student vote offers taste of real democracy

Women look on as supporters of the Fatah and Hamas movements rally on the eve of the student council elections at the Birzeit University, on the outskirts of Ramallah on April 21, 2015 (Photo- AFP/Abbas Momani)
 As relations between rival political factions hit rock bottom and with the prospect of a general election ever more distant, some Palestinians are left with a single voting outlet — student elections.
The annual student council vote has all the flavour of a general election, pitting Fatah and Hamas, the two main political blocs, against each other.
At Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, two candidates traded jibes this week in a staged debate before voting that suggested these elections are based less on campus issues and more on which party the students support.
"You\’ve told us 13 times you\’ll end security cooperation with Israel," the Hamas candidate railed.
"Where are the Gaza port and airport that you\’ve promised us?" retorted his Fatah opponent.
The topics may be beyond the remit of student candidates, but they are indicative of how politics permeates all levels of Palestinian society, and highlight the importance of factional allegiance among the student population.
Birzeit politics professor Imed Ghazaya told AFP that the vote was a key chance for students to express themselves.
"This is a time when young people can debate topics like the (Israeli) occupation and how to free Palestine," he said.
Wednesday\’s election at Birzeit was won by Hamas, which claimed 26 out of 51 seats compared to Fatah\’s 19.
As ever, the result was big news, running as a top story on national Palestinian TV.
The political split that has plagued Palestinians for almost a decade worsened this week after a delegation of Fatah ministers from the West Bank cut short their visit to the Gaza Strip for talks with Hamas officials.
The members of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) admitted key disagreements between the blocs had caused the "failure" of a unity deal agreed in April 2014.
General elections last took place in 2006 and look unlikely anytime soon, making the student council vote the only taste young Palestinians can get of electoral democracy.
"It\’s a tradition inherited from the time before the creation of the Palestinian Authority," said Ghazaya, who monitored the Birzeit student debate.
Hamas won the 2006 election, and relations between the two factions deteriorated into violence in Gaza the following year. The Islamist movement then banished Fatah, which is headed by president Mahmud Abbas, from the territory.
Supporters of the Hamas movement rally on the eve of student council elections at Birzeit University, on the outskirts of Ramallah on April 21, 2015. Photo – AFP
Abbas\’ term of office has long since expired but he remains in charge in lieu of a fresh vote.
The Palestinian unity government — a cabinet of independent technocrats agreed by the two factions in June last year — is headquartered in Ramallah and 2014\’s unity deal was meant to see control of the Gaza Strip handed to the PA.
But a pay dispute between the PA and Hamas has hampered rapprochement.
The PA refuses to pay tens of thousands of Gaza administrative workers who Hamas hired after taking over the Strip in 2007 — and there is no sign of a solution.
Around 70 percent of Palestinians in the territories are under 30 and so, with a general election still a distant prospect, the two factions enthusiastically finance annual student campaigns.
According to Aref Jafal of the Arab World Democracy and Electoral Monitor, the student vote allows both parties to exert their influence on an impressionable student population.
"For high-ranking Fatah and Hamas members, a victory in the student elections is a victory for their party," he said.
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