Palestinian Election Landmines are Being Slowly Dismantled
A number of remaining issues could scuttle the legislative or presidential balloting
The near-impossible task of organizing general Palestinian elections before reconciliation between PLO nationalists and Hamas Islamists appears to being slowly resolved. Still, no one is willing to bet on free and fair elections taking place on the scheduled date, May 22.
To hold such elections Palestinians needed to find common ground on political, legal, and security concerns. Politically, Hamas and Fatah appear to be in general agreement on supporting Palestinian statehood with East Jerusalem as its capital along the 1967 borders and that only nonviolent popular resistance to the Israeli should be used to accomplish this goal. Legal issues were resolved by having [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas issue a presidential decree to layout dates for legislative elections based on proportional representation to be followed by presidential elections. Legal issues that are more difficult such as unifying the laws and courts between Gaza and the West Bank didn’t happen but an agreement on election courts was reached postponing the other issues until after a coalition government is formed. Security issues remain the biggest nut to crack. A decree for the freedom of expression and the need to release political prisoners appears to have eased this problem. Hamas announced on February 24 the names of 45 pro-Fatah prisoners in Gaza who will be released. Fatah says there are over 80 political prisoners, and Hamas says more will be released in the coming days but that some are security prisoners, not political ones.
Election-related landmines are being dismantled in part due to regional and international support as well as an overwhelming public longing for elections. More than 90% of eligible Palestinian voters over 18 have already registered, clearing the way for an election in which one million Palestinians will be voting for the first time.
As much as this is heartening, it is a source of major concern to those in power who are worried that the young and angry electorate will not have the appetite to re-elect the same leaders they feel have failed. The idea of having a joint Fatah-Hamas list appears to be crumbling as opposition in both sides and a sense that this will be highly undemocratic at a time when the two major factions have still not reconciled will torpedo the idea. Finessing the status of Palestinian leaders like Marwan Barghouti, who is in jail but demanding to run for president, and dealing with renegade Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan and his supporters, also appear to be causing major headaches to the Palestinian president and his minions who are afraid of being kicked out power and therefore are holding tightly to Abbas. The 85-year-old president had previously said he would not run again but those around him are insisting that he is the only consensus leader other than Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli prison, convicted of intifada-related attacks against Israelis.
Barghouti has already rejected an offer to participate on the Fatah list with ten of his supporters. One of his supporters, Fatah Central Committee member Nasser al Qudwa, has rejected Abbas’s wishes (and threats) that there should be a single Fatah list. Qudwa says that since elections are on a proportional basis, having more than one Fatah list will actually be better for Fatah. Recent polls show that if Marwan Barghouti is involved in either a single list or in one of two Fatah lists the results will ensure Fatah will be in the driver’s seat in setting up a coalition government.
Despite the tremendous progress in dismantling the obstacles, the threat of delay or cancellation of elections still looms large. If Abbas and his supporters are unsure of the results or feel that they can lose power either to fellow Fatah leaders or to others, they might simply scuttle elections using any of a number of excuses. The participation of Jerusalemites in the elections could be one. In the past, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been allowed to vote in local post offices. May 22 is a Saturday and officials of the Israeli-run post office have said that they will not open under any circumstances on what is the Jewish Sabbath. Any number of arrests or refusal to release prisoners in either Gaza or the West Bank could be justification by either Fatah or Hamas to attempt to delay elections.
Regional forces are concerned about the outcome of the elections. Intelligence leaders from Egypt and Jordan have flown to Ramallah to confer with the Palestinian leadership. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi paid an unannounced visit to Amman to confer with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on the same. The Biden Administration, which is still in its early stages of preparing its Middle East strategy, has yet to declare its position on the upcoming elections. President Joe Biden, who will talk to King Salman of Saudi Arabia soon, has yet to speak to Abbas, el-Sisi or Abdullah.
While the odds regarding the possibility of holding Palestinian elections have increased dramatically, there remain plenty of possibilities for the long-awaited opportunity for Palestinians to cast their vote in the new direction and for new leaders can be scuttled.