Hamas as a Political Party

In this article, we seek to answer the following questions — why do violent movements participate in elections and what factors explain the timing of these decisions to participate? To answer this question, we examine the case of Hamas’s formation of the Reform and Change Party and its iconic victory in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council. We present arguments that clarify Hamas’ decision to form the Reform and Change party and the timing of this decision.

To explain the decision to participate, unlike much of the existing literature, first we highlight that Hamas’s decision to form this party and participate at the legislative level logically followed nearly two decades of participation in local and municipal elections. Hamas’s foray into elections was in keeping with its deliberate, dual strategy of violent dissent against the Israeli state and popular appeal to the Palestinian people through the provision of welfare services. Second, Hamas’ appeal to Palestinian citizens through political representation is explained by its reliance on external donors who provide funds to support an impoverished Palestinian population. We extend Jeremy Weinstein’s work on the influence of funding sources on the types of organizations built and encouraged by rebel groups. We demonstrate that groups, such as Hamas who rely on external sources of funding, are likely to be concerned with local support, build more participatory internal organizational structures and participate in external participatory structures such as legislatures. Nearly one in six Palestinians rely on organizations like Hamas for its charitable and welfare services and the organization and its affiliates provide nearly 65% of education below the secondary level in the Palestinian Territories. This pervasive presence and consequent popular support from the Palestinian people for its welfare programs and civilian institutions helps Hamas maintain its funding from charitable organizations and individuals based primarily in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran but also Jordan, Kuwait, Western Europe and North America. These strategic considerations help explain why Hamas initially decided to participate in local elections in the early 1990s eventually leading to its 2006 legislative victory.

The second question regarding the timing of Hamas’s entry into the legislative elections in 2006 is best explained by some external factors and one internal to the organization. External factors include a declining hegemonic party (Fatah), weakly enforced electoral rules regarding party registration and Hamas’s own rapid rise in popularity among Palestinian civilians – all these provided Hamas with a unique political opportunity to participate at the legislative level with greater odds of success. The internal factor was the increase in dominance of moderate voices within Hamas’s leadership structure that supported electoral participation at the national level. These moderate leaders saw electoral participation as an effective strategy to further undermine Fatah’s ineffective rule, and gain further legitimacy — inspired in part by the success of other Islamist movements-turned-parties such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Finally, we discuss the implications for Hamas’ participation in legislative elections for the organization’s moderation and democratization in the Palestinian Territories. In spite of Hamas’s victory, the international boycott led by the U.S. and Israel, the arrest of several Hamas parliamentarians and the continuing impasse between Fatah and Hamas have led to great disappointment for those hoping for moderation and further democratization in the Palestinian Territories. The economic and political stranglehold put on Hamas led one official to ask, “So which language should Hamas use, the language of negotiation or the language of jihad? I’m trying to speak the language of negotiation, but what am I gaining?” This sidelining of Hamas in the political process has unfortunately further strengthened Hamas’ resolve to continue the use of violence against Israel, as part of its dual strategy. In conclusion, continuing democratization in the Palestinian Territories relies on a commitment by both domestic and international actors to support democratic processes. For international actors, this includes allowing popularly elected leaders to participate in government institutions and influence policymaking, encouraging them to use institutions for further conflict resolution and reducing incentives for violent action.

This research has findings applicable to both academics and policymakers interested in violent social movements and their transformation into political parties. First, these violent movements are strategic actors who choose strategies based on rational calculations regarding future success. Among these, organizations that depend on external funding from sources that make these decisions based on the plight of ordinary citizens have strong incentives to prove their legitimacy among citizens. Steps towards improving and demonstrating legitimacy may include not only a more participatory internal structure but also participation in broader democratic institutions such as elections and government. Once elected, these movements have to learn to cooperate with existing political parties to form governments and influence policymaking. In order for these processes to be successful, it is incumbent on international actors to support these actors’ access to government and policymaking. The existence of the above conditions together may help us see more successful transformations of violent social movements into political parties and sustainable democratization in areas such as the Palestinian Territories.

For a fuller discussion see: Bhasin, Tavishi and Maia Carter Hallward. 2013. “Hamas as a Political Party: Democratization in the Palestinian Territories” in Terrorism and Political Violence, 25(1) pp 75-93.

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