Student Council Elections – the Palestinian Most Persistent Expression of Democracy

As the season of university councils’ elections comes to end, the Fatah-affiliated Shabibeh is emerging as the clear winner. But despite the long tradition of democracy in these elections, they have come under harsh criticism of unfairness and exclusion.

In the latest of the university elections in the West Bank, the Fatah affiliated Shabibeh won the student council elections at the University of Hebron last week. This is the latest such elections win since the student council’s election season started at Palestinian universities over a fortnight ago. But these elections are not merely about university matters. Instead, they serve as an indicator for Palestinian democratic attitudes and reflect political affiliation as national elections have not been held in Palestine for over a decade.


Historically, student councils’ elections have been held for about forty years at Palestinian universities. The different student parties are aligned with parties of the Palestinian political landscape and experience ups and downs just as their counterparts. During the 1980s, when Palestine Liberation Organization factions dominated the political scene, especially left-wing parties succeeded in the elections. After the Palestinian National Authority was established, power shifted towards Fatah affiliated student lists. With the rise of Hamas, affiliated student parties saw an upward trend until the separation of Hamas and Fatah and the beginning of the Palestinian schism in 2007. Since then, most Hamas’ student factions were removed, voluntarily or otherwise, from running in university elections until recently. It is not surprising though, that the main dividing line today lies between competing Fatah and Hamas-affiliated blocs. Still, all four universities that have already voted, draw a clear picture that Fatah dominates this year’s elections: At Al-Quds University they won 31 out of 51 seats, at Hebron University they got a large majority of 30 seats (compared to 11 seats for Hamas and surprisingly no seat for the left-wing parties) and at Polytechnic University Fatah won even 26 seats out of 31, with five seats for the left-wing parties. Fatah also got all seats at Bethlehem University. There is only Al-Najah University, in Nablus, left, whose elections are in November. Student councils at Palestinian universities mainly provide support to the students. Composed of different committees, student councils organize both social activities and protests – for example when it comes to rising tuition fees – as they are able to put pressure on the university’s administration.


Over all others, Birzeit University of Ramallah is of special interest in terms of its reputation as a yardstick for political stances among young people. This is due to several reasons: Birzeit University is among the biggest and best universities in Palestine. Located in the heart of the Palestinian territories and just beside the government, it is regarded as symbol for the overall Palestinian students’ opinion. Since it enjoys the reputation of being a rather liberal institution, last four years’ victories of Hamas affiliated parties have been a remarkable shift. This year, however, on April 17, Fatah students received a narrow majority of the votes by improving their result by seven percent. Still, both Fatah and Hamas won 23 seats (4065 votes for Fatah compared to 3997 votes for Hamas), while left-wing parties received five seats.


In this light, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, declared the successes of the Fatah blocs as “a revival of the Fatah movement and a sign that Palestinians are embracing the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s program for an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.”[1] Likewise, university President Abdul Latif Abu Hijleh stressed the election’s success stating that students “have broken the barriers that suppress the democratic process in Palestine.” [2]


Still, there is also harsh criticism on this year’s election, if not in Birzeit. The left-wing “Watan” bloc of Bethlehem University has declared its boycott of the election, demanding an electoral system based on the principle of proportional representation.[3] Thus, Fatah won all seats at Bethlehem University without election. Likewise, Hamas aligned Islamic movements accuse the Palestinian Authority security services of preventing their members from taking part in free elections. They claim that the elections have been accompanied by campaigns of repression and intimidation.[4] Meanwhile in Gaza, criticism is raised against the repeated absence of elections. Hatem Abu Zakari, head of the Fatah youth movement in Gaza, demands “democratic practices in all Gaza universities” since student council elections have been suspended for twelve years.[5]


This proves once more the political significance that is inherent to university elections. Different political parties use student blocs as platforms to spread their ideas, attempting to attract supporters to their ranks. Yet, the extremely high turnout of around 78 percent shows once again that young Palestinians thirst for democratic elections. Even if national elections are unlikely to be held in the near future, the student council elections might have a positive impact on political opinion-forming and participation considering their role in the Palestinian public sphere, which extends far beyond simple university elections.


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