by Yousef Munayyer
Before the recent speech by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations General Assembly in September, it was reported that he would call for international assistance and protection for Palestinian parliamentary elections. Indeed, Abbas issued that announcement during his speech and committed to calling for elections upon his return home from New York, saying “I will call for general elections in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem, and we will hold those who object to the elections accountable to God, the international community, and history.”
When he returned to Palestine, Abbas first announced his intention to move forward with elections in a meeting with the Fatah Central Committee on October 1. He reiterated the call on October 3 at a meeting of the PLO’s Executive Committee, stating that the issue of legislative elections has been much delayed despite repeated efforts by the PLO to make them a reality.
On October 7, Abbas instructed the head of the Elections Commission, Hanna Nasser, to begin preparations for legislative elections. Additionally, Saeb Erekat, the PLO Executive Committee’s secretary general, reiterated the call for international assistance in ensuring an election in his meeting with UN representatives.
To better understand what might be motivating the sudden move toward elections, it is important to understand the contextual background that brought us to this point. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is a creation of the Oslo Peace Process and was supposed to serve as a government in waiting as the process of state formation was underway, at which point it would become the sovereign government of the State of Palestine. That, of course, never happened. Instead, the PNA continued to exist in limbo, with little actual authority as it relates to sovereign matters but with an assumption of certain administrative responsibilities over the occupied Palestinian population. This process also included a collapse of preexisting Palestinian institutions as new ones were formed.
Previously, the Palestine Liberation Organization, had worked to keep the mantra of “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”; however, the mechanisms through which legitimate representation was expressed and renewed in the PLO became increasingly defunct as the PLO assumed leadership of the Palestinian National Authority. New mechanisms for expressing and renewing legitimate representation would now be necessary, including elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC)—the parliamentary and lawmaking body of the state of Palestine—based entirely in occupied territory. This essentially replaced, or at minimum came to compete with, the preexisting Palestinian National Council, the representative body of the PLO, which was not geographically limited to the occupied territories but also included diaspora Palestinian communities and Palestinians in exile.
The collapse of these institutions is important because it impacted the legitimacy of the leadership. While still claiming to represent Palestinian national interests at the negotiating table, where the rights of a wide range of Palestinian stakeholders would be discussed, the Palestinian leadership would—at best—be getting a regular mandate from a subset of the stakeholders it claims to represent. This tension already began to create a legitimacy crisis for the Palestinian leadership, one that was exacerbated as the Oslo Process dragged on and revealed itself to offer little for Palestinians, particularly Palestinian refugees and citizens of Israel.
What compounded this legitimacy crisis was the 2006 legislative elections that led to a political divide within a political divide. That year and for the first time, the Hamas movement decided to contest PLC elections. It had not done so in the previous PLC elections. But not only did Hamas contest the election in 2006, it managed to win control of the PLC as a result. What this meant was that the Hamas leadership could form the government of the Palestinian National Authority, even though the PNA was headed by a president who was their political rival and elected a year prior, in 2005, after the death of the long-time PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat.
The 2006 election result meant Abbas had a crucial decision to make: would he risk relations with Washington and work with Hamas toward governance, or would he oppose Hamas and risk shattering the already weak political fabric of occupied Palestinian society? He chose the latter route. Consequently, as western powers began to choke the Hamas-led PLC, animosity between Fatah and Hamas grew and culminated in fighting in Gaza in 2007. This resulted in a political split in the Palestinian Authority with one side run by Hamas out of Gaza, claiming legitimacy from the ballot box, and another run from Ramallah by Abbas and Fatah.
The division that has lasted since then has been debilitating for Palestinians and engendered deep distrust and animosity between the rival factions. Despite multiple reconciliation efforts, no genuine political reconciliation has been possible and the geographic division between the West Bank and Gaza only complicated things further. While this scenario unfolded, Abbas has remained in office since 2005 on a four-year term that has lasted 14 years. The term of PLC members has expired as well, though some might argue they never really had a chance to serve the term to begin with due to the division of the PNA in 2007. The legitimacy of both the PNA presidency and parliament waned with every passing year as Palestinians saw little hope in the state-building project this authority was supposed to carry into fruition. Then, in December 2018, the Supreme Constitutional Court issued a decree dissolving the parliament and calling for the president to announce elections within six months.
This court was established by Mahmoud Abbas in April 2016, a decade after a law called for its establishment. It is widely seen as packed with Abbas loyalists and as an institution that can be counted on to do his bidding. The formation of the court and its use to sideline political rivals has been the subject of criticism by Palestinian human rights groups.
Now Abbas seems to be moving after the court’s ruling—which he himself may have instigated—and the deadline stipulated by the court itself has already passed.
Could Elections be Held? What Would Be the Outcome?
If Palestinians went to the polls today, what would be the outcome? The answer to this question is not particularly reassuring to Abbas and his political allies. Public opinion polling on Palestinian attitudes tells us an election victory is far from a sure thing. In fact the most recent polling from just under a month ago indicates that 61 percent want Abbas to resign while only 35 percent want him to remain in office. In a head-to-head matchup for the presidency with Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, Abbas gets about 48 percent and Haniyeh 46 percent. On the parliamentary side there seems to be a more optimistic picture for Abbas’s Fatah Party, which polls at 38 percent while Hamas receives only 29 percent. Importantly, some 23 percent of voters are undecided. Additionally, one of the important lessons of the 2006 election was that in many races Palestinian votes were less determined by the slates themselves than by the individual candidates and races within particular districts. By no means can Abbas look at these numbers and feel that an election would return a resounding mandate for him and his party. And the idea of only holding parliamentary and not presidential elections is overwhelmingly opposed by the public, 72 percent of whom say they want simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections.
Despite these numbers, which do not induce confidence, Abbas may not have to worry much at all because it is hard to see how elections can actually and practically take place. The divide between the West Bank and Gaza has not been bridged. Hamas has said it wants both parliamentary and presidential elections in the West Bank, Gaza, and occupied Jerusalem. It is not clear that Abbas wants presidential elections at all. Unless there is agreement on these points, moving forward would be very difficult. Further, the distrust between the parties would require agreements on administering free and fair elections, and this too will be a challenge. Finally, all Palestinian parties want to include occupied East Jerusalem, where some 340,000 Palestinians live, in the voting. But Israel is unlikely to allow this. Therefore, unless the elections would be for both the presidency and the parliament and take place in a free and fair fashion in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, they likely will not take place. Since all interested, including the Israelis, would have to cooperate to allow elections to happen, and given the deep distrust among all parties, a coordinated outside effort would be required to push them in this direction. Washington would have to play a role and the Trump Administration seems not to have the slightest interest in doing so. This means both that the chances for elections actually taking place are somewhere between infinitesimal and nonexistent and that there are various parties to blame for such an eventuality.
By going through the motions of calling for an election that will not materialize and then blaming others when it does not, even if saying they will be held accountable by “God, the international community and history,” Abbas can attempt to renew his mandate not through the ballot box but by arguing that his opponents and others made that path impossible.
This, of course, is not a new position. Abbas and Hamas have both declared their readiness for elections but have always failed to take the steps necessary to implement them. There is another round of the blame game that usually follows and each then goes back to their respective Israeli-controlled prison, having put the election talk to rest for another period of time.
But could there be more to it this time?
It is no secret that succession is an open question in Palestinian politics. Abbas, the last remnant of the old guard of the PLO, turns 84 in November. His signature project, a Palestinian state delivered via Washington-mediated negotiations, is further from reality today than perhaps any time in recent memory. Palestinians are indeed hungry for a new leadership, but they are also yearning for a new vision for how to move forward with the national liberation project. Given Abbas’s age and occasional health issues, Palestinians might find themselves in a situation, with very little advanced warning, where there is a leadership vacuum. This reality might suggest that the dissolution of the parliament by the court created and stocked by Abbas was less about moving the country toward new elections and more about clarifying succession questions.
Technically speaking, should the president be incapacitated, the chairman of the legislative council would become the interim president. The last chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council was Aziz Dweik, a Hamas parliamentarian. But with the Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision to disband the PLC, that position, too, is now apparently vacated. If elections cannot happen, which is likely the case, Abbas may seek to use the court to legitimize an alternative maneuver for creating a succession plan in the extraordinary circumstance that the parliament is disbanded and cannot be reelected. Exactly what that process might look like and whom Abbas might seek to name as a successor is yet to be seen.