Elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council and presidency, respectively scheduled for 22 May and 31 July, have been postponed indefinitely – and effectively cancelled.
- Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas announced on Thursday that the elections, which would have been the first to take place since 2006, would be postponed. Most observers see the indefinite delay as an effective cancellation.
- He justified the decision by claiming that the elections, which were announced in January, could only take place if Palestinians in East Jerusalem were able to take part.
- However, Abbas’s opponents and independent analysts point to the bleak domestic political situation as the root cause.
- The announcement comes as Abbas, 86, faces unprecedented challenges from rivals which severely weaken his party’s chances of success.
- Hamas, a Fatah rival that runs Gaza, slammed the decision to postpone the elections as a “coup”.
- Abbas, who was elected in 2005, has governed by executive fiat since his term expired in 2009.
The last elections in the Palestinian territories took place in January 2006. The result saw a victory for Hamas, a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction, which won 74 of 132 seats in the Legislative Council. Fatah, Abbas’ ruling party, won just 45 seats. The results prompted a civil war between Hamas and Fatah in which over 600 Palestinians were killed, including 98 civilians. Ultimately, Hamas seized power in a bloody coup in the Gaza Strip, while Abbas remained in post within the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
Since 2006, there have been several attempts to hold elections in the Palestinian territories, all of them unsuccessful due to mutual distrust between parties and Fatah’s fear of losing power. Elections scheduled for April 2014 were delayed indefinitely. A 2017 deal between Fatah and Hamas envisioned elections in 2018, but these were not held. In September 2019, Abbas told the UN General Assembly that he intended to call elections in the near future. These were initially scheduled for February/March 2021, but later pushed back to 22 May, before being postponed indefinitely last week.
Threats from without, splits from within
Abbas’s claim that the decision to postpone the elections was rooted in electoral disputes over East Jerusalem was undermined by the context both outside and within the president’s party.
- Decrying the decision as a “coup against the path of partnership and national consensus”, Hamas asserted that “our popular and national consensus cannot be pawned as collateral for the agenda of a faction”.
- Hamas boycotted the meeting at which Abbas made his announcement, having anticipated his decision. “We knew in advance that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority were going to disrupt the electoral process, due to other interests that have nothing to do with the issue of Jerusalem,” it said.
- Hamas squarely laid the blame at Fatah’s door, claiming that Abbas “bore full responsibility for this decision and its consequences”.
- The likelihood of defeat for Abbas’ Fatah movement, both due to the popularity of Hamas and breakaway factions from his own party, was a key factor in the decision to postpone.
- Fatah split into three factions ahead of the elections: an official list backed by Abbas; a second faction led by popular jailed leader and convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti; and a third slate sponsored by Mohammad Dahlan, a former close ally of Abbas now exiled to Abu Dhabi.
- Recent polling gave Abbas’ list a quarter of the vote, Barghouti’s faction a further 15 percent, and Dahlan’s 10 percent – leaving Hamas as the largest party. Like Hamas, Barghouti strongly opposed postponing the elections.
The Jerusalem issue
Abbas justified the delay by claiming that Israel was not allowing Palestinians in East Jerusalem to take part in the elections. “Facing this difficult situation”, he said on Palestinian television, “we decided to postpone the date of holding legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed.” Abbas had insisted that all 150,000 eligible Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem must be able to cast ballots. However, this contradicted previous agreements with Israel governing Palestinian voting rights in the city. Under these circumstances, as occurred in 2006, some 6,300 Palestinians could vote in designated post offices in East Jerusalem, while the remainder cast their vote outside of the city boundaries. Israel’s foreign ministry said that the country had “no intention of intervening in [the Palestinian elections] … nor preventing them”.
What it all means
Postponing the elections has a number of implications for the Palestinians and the region.
- For Israel, the cancellation risks triggering conflict with Hamas, not least following recent clashes in Jerusalem and rocket fire from Gaza.
- Hamas will likely emerge as the political winner in the short term. Having opposed the postponement, the terror group is on the side of the 76 percent of Palestinians who want elections and the 61 percent who expected them to take place.
- Fatah’s political crisis will likely continue, with Abbas blamed for the cancellation – further eroding his dire public standing. Some 68 percent of Palestinians want him to resign.
- The legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, which Abbas leads, is further undermined, with the marginalisation of breakaway Fatah factions potentially sparking protests or mass confrontations. The party’s longstanding divisions, which the election preparations catalysed into real splits, remain.
- At a national level, the failure to hold elections demonstrates the difficulty of achieving intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Attempts at both limited and comprehensive reconciliation have now failed, with little prospect of that changing any time soon.
It is unclear how much the Palestinian public – most of which supports holding the elections on time – believe Abbas’ justification. Small demonstrations took place in Gaza and Ramallah as the decision was announced on Thursday, with protestors chanting “The people want the ballot box!” in Ramallah’s Al-Manara Square.
Israel did not publicly say whether it actually would prevent elections from taking place in East Jerusalem, but has recently insisted that it would not intervene or seek to cancel the scheduled elections. When asked about a potential delay last week, Israeli officials said that they feared a delay could lead to renewed conflict with Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and has recently allowed rockets to be fired into Israel from Gaza.
The world reacts
Despite frustrations with the failure of democratic process in the Palestinian territories, reactions to the cancellation of the elections were shaped by the prospect of what might have happened had they gone ahead.
- The EU and UN officials – the former of which played a significant role in encouraging the announcement of elections – sharply condemned Abbas’ announcement and called on him to set a new date.
- Israel and the US will have breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the prospect of electoral victory for Hamas subsided. Both would have found it difficult to engage with the Palestinians had Hamas been brought back into its structures.
- Hamas’ decision to nominate election candidates directly involved in terrorism meant that the planned elections had limited enthusiasm on the world stage. Jordan and Egypt were known to have made their own concerns about the elections known, albeit privately.
What happens next
Abbas’ claim that he would hold the postponed elections “within a week” should East Jerusalemite Palestinians be included has been given little credence by observers in the Palestinian territories and beyond. Should past events be any guide, it will be a long time until the Palestinian people vote again.