Election fever in Gaza and the West Bank has been in full swing for over a month after Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas called in January this year for legislative and presidential elections to be held on 22 May and 21 July, respectively, the first in 15 years.
Thirty-six electoral lists had registered by 31 March and were approved by the electoral board in early April, as the political map of 2021 began to take shape.
Divisions within Fatah, Abbas’s party, materialised in four competing lists threatening the faction’s dominance over the West Bank. More threatening, perhaps, was would-be competition from Fatah figures against Abbas himself in the July presidential vote.
A third poll was scheduled for the Palestinian National Council (PNC) on 31 August that would have completed a much-needed democratic overhaul of the Palestinian political system.
It was, in the words of pundits, “the return of Palestinian politics” after a decade-and-a-half frozen in time after the fallout of the last elections in 2006. An unprecedented 93 per cent of Palestinians registered to vote.
But this return to democratic politics might have been a miscalculation for Abbas, who decided to “postpone” the elections on 29 April, just three weeks before the polls, citing uncertainty about whether Israel would allow the vote to take place in East Jerusalem.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 War. In 1980, it illegally annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians consider to be their capital, in a move condemned by the United Nations.
“This is not a ruse,” Abbas said. “If they [Israel] say yes, we will go to the polls tomorrow. Elections for us are not a tactic; they are [a means] to entrench democracy and our right to Palestine.”
“Our people are excited about the elections. There is enthusiasm... but what about Jerusalem? Where is Jerusalem,” he asked. Since its status is unclear, the PA president said, the elections would be postponed until they were also “guaranteed” in Jerusalem.
There are 150,000 eligible Palestinian voters in Jerusalem.
Despite Abbas’s protestations, critics say that the postponement of the elections is indeed a ruse. The Israeli authorities have remained silent. They can hamper or prevent the elections if they decide to do so, but they have made no effort thus far to stop them.
Even the Israeli media took note.
“The postponing of the Palestinian elections proves Abbas is closer to Israel’s interests than to his own people,” journalist Amira Hass wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The reason the vote was put off, she argued, was because it was bad for Abbas and the unelected officials who run the PA and wish to maintain the status quo.
In 2006, the Islamist Palestinian resistance group Hamas won legislative elections in a result that was rejected by Abbas, the PA, Israel and the international community. Following a power struggle between the two factions, Hamas seized control of Gaza, while the PA remained in the West Bank, entrenching the long years of Palestinian divisions to come.
Abbas, 85, who was elected for two terms in 2005, has remained in power since then after suspending the elected Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), leaving him to rule by decree.
His surprise call for elections in January was interpreted as a nod to US and European demands for the PA to renew its legitimacy. But signs that Abbas, other PA officials and Fatah would lose their grip on power, giving way to another Hamas win and even the ascendance of secular rivals, did not sit well with some Arab capitals as well as the PA chairman.
According to independent Palestinian polls, Abbas would have been likely to lose the presidential elections. His biggest threat, the popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, 61, who is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison, had indicated he was planning to contest the July vote.
Barghouti, who leads in all the Palestinian opinion polls, even turned down Fatah’s offer to head their election list for the PLC, which included electing him parliamentary speaker and launching an ambitious international campaign for his release. Instead, he confirmed speculation that he planned to run independently and break away from his party.
Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian prime minister, was also planning to contest the presidential elections, lending his support to a bloc of independent personalities and offering a secular alternative to Fatah. Similarly, Nasser Al-Qudwa, nephew of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, had announced a rival electoral list to compete with Fatah’s, with tentative plans to run in the July poll.
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell called the decision to postpone the elections “deeply disappointing” and said a new election date should be set without delay. Hamas said it amounted to a “coup.”
“This represents a coup against the path of partnership and national consensus. Our popular and national consensus cannot be pawned as collateral for the agenda of a faction,” the Islamist group said in a statement.
Abbas’s decision “to disrupt the electoral process” was predictable, the group added. “It has nothing to do with Jerusalem.”
The PA chairman might have secured his office for now, but he has also created an explosive situation that could exacerbate Fatah’s in-fighting and deepen the divisions with Gaza and Hamas.
In Gaza, thousands of people took to the streets demanding that the elections be held after Abbas’s decision. “The people want the ballot box,” they chanted. In Ramallah, smaller protests slammed the Palestinian leadership.
“We have an entire generation that has never voted, never exercised democracy, never known elections,” said Tarek Khodiri, a protester in Ramallah. “This generation deserves to elect its leadership. The youngest official is 60 years old. Enough!”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly