Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree on Friday ordering Palestinian national elections to be held within the next seven months, a move which could send Palestinians to the ballot box for the first time since 2006.
Abbas has promised elections several times since his four-year term was supposed to have expired in 2009. However, repeated attempts to hold votes for president and parliament have failed, largely due to the inability of rivals Fatah and Hamas to agree to terms.
Observers were skeptical of the announcement this time as well, saying that many issues remained unresolved between the two opposing Palestinian movements. Fatah and Hamas officials are scheduled to meet in Cairo in the coming days to agree on the details on the vote.
According to the decree, which was published on Friday night, Palestinians across the territories — in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank — will head to the ballot box on May 22, 2021 to vote for the Palestinian Legislative Council.
If all goes according to the decree, another two rounds of elections will be held afterward: on Saturday, July 31, 2021, they will vote for Palestinian Authority president, a position Abbas has held since 2004, and on August 31, 2021, they will vote a third time for the Palestinian National Council.
The Hamas terror group, Abbas’s rivals, welcomed the presidential decree and vowed to “fulfill the promise” offered by the move towards elections through negotiations over the election bylaws. Senior officials in Fatah and Hamas will reportedly soon head to Cairo to discuss some of the voting terms.
“It is necessary to expedite the holding of a comprehensive national dialogue in which all Palestinian factions participate without exception,” Hamas said in a statement.
Presidential elections were last called after Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004. The last presidential elections were held on January 9, 2005, which ended with Abbas victorious.
Palestinian national elections have not been held since 2006, when Hamas took a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Abbas’s Fatah movement refused to sit with Hamas or give up control of its institutions, which it had ruled since the Palestinian Authority’s formation in the late 1990s.
The subsequent tug-of-war eventually led to a bloody struggle for control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas won, expelling Fatah to the West Bank. The Palestinian legislature has essentially been inactive since then, as most power has devolved to Abbas’s executive branch.
“Abbas may want to restore his legitimacy in front of the international community, after ruling for so many years without elections. The regional picture has also changed dramatically over the last few months, with the normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab states,” said Palestinian political analyst Jihad Harb, who added that he was “not optimistic” that the vote would actually take place.
Since then, several attempts have been made to bridge the gaps dividing Hamas and Fatah — the fundamental gap in Palestinian party politics. National unity has always been popular among Palestinians, leading to the attempts to establish a unity government and hold elections again. Negotiations between the two movements have regularly been held in friendly capitals such as Doha, Cairo and Istanbul. Reconciliation agreements have been signed at several points over the years, but none have ever lead to a functioning unity government.
Several similar announcements that Palestinians would return to the ballot box have fizzled out over the past 13 years. Local municipal elections have been held in the West Bank twice, with Hamas largely boycotting the proceedings. Abbas has also publicly pledged to hold elections on several occasions — but each attempt flopped before it came to fruition.
But Abbas has not gone as far as to issue an election decree since 2009, making Friday’s presidential order the first in more than a decade.
It is not clear how such elections would go for the 85-year-old Abbas. According to a recent opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Abbas and Hamas terror chief Ismail Haniyeh would receive 39% of the vote and the latter 52% if they were the only two candidates running. But around two-thirds of Palestinians think Abbas should resign, according to the Center’s polling.
Even though elections have been announced, numerous issues remain to be publicly hashed out before the vote can successfully go forward, said Harb.
“There are numerous questions that have simply not been answered at this point — an independent election court needs to be established to adjudicate between all the parties. It must be decided whose security forces will monitor the elections, and there must be a commitment to free elections without political arrests,” he said.
There is also the question of East Jerusalem — Israel has long opposed Palestinian activity in the city, especially by the Hamas terror group. In the last few years, Israel has cracked down on PA operations in the city’s boundaries. When election talk filled the Palestinian airwaves in late 2019, Abbas refused to issue a decree before Israel guaranteed East Jerusalem Palestinians could cast ballots.
“We still haven’t heard anything from the Israeli side about Jerusalem, specifically, which could pose a major obstacle,” said Prof. Mukhaymar Abu Sa’ada, who teaches political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
In the negotiations between Palestinian factions that preceded the announcement, Hamas had initially demanded that the elections be held at the same time. Fatah insisted, however, that elections be held one after the other.
Over the last few days, Abbas issued a number of unilateral amendments to the Palestinian elections law, officially setting those conditions into law.
“Hamas ended up granting all of Abbas’s conditions for elections. You want proportional representation rather than by district? Take it. You want a series of elections rather than having them all at once? Why not,” said Palestinian affairs expert Michael Milshtein, listing some of Abbas’s demands in the negotiations.
But Milshtein, who directs the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, was as circumspect about the possibility of elections as his Palestinian counterparts. Just because the decree had been issued did not necessarily mean that elections would be held, he argued.
“Abbas can cancel the decree any time he wants. That he issues a decree does not show that he is serious about going to elections. He can always pull out this card of East Jerusalem and try to get out of it,” Milshtein said.
The most recent unity push began when Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub and Hamas deputy Saleh al-Arouri announced that they would coordinate “joint action” in response to Israel’s now-suspended plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The cooperation never materialized on the ground, however, and a planned Abbas speech at a rally in Gaza was quietly dropped.
In response to the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize ties with Israel, a rare meeting of Palestinian faction heads was held earlier in September. One after the other, the leaders of 14 major Palestinian groups spoke, including both Abbas and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.
“We will work to end division, achieve reconciliation, and hold general legislative elections… Know that we are one people,” Abbas said in a speech opening the meeting.
But the atmosphere soon soured again as the American elections approached. Many predicted that Abbas would end his pivot towards reconciliation with US President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over incumbent Donald Trump.
Fatah appeared to complete such a change in policy when it announced in late November that it was resuming security coordination with Israel, a practice it had suspended in protest over Israel’s stated annexation plan.
To add insult to injury, the announcement came as Rajoub was sitting down with Arouri in Cairo for reconciliation talks. The two delegations left the Egyptian capital the following day, issuing terse statements of their commitment to national unity.
But election talk returned in recent days as Abbas and Haniyeh swapped letters pledged that they would hold pan-Palestinian elections. Finally, on Friday night, those pledges took perhaps the most serious step since 2006.
But many observers were still pessimistic about whether elections would actually happen.
“There are numerous factors which could lead us to elections. But there’s been no agreement on any of the deep, serious factors which divide the parties,” Harb said.