On Jan. 15, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that elections to the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) would be held May 22, presidential elections on July 31, and elections to the 351-member Palestinian National Council on August 31. These will be the first elections for the PLC and the presidency in more than 15 years, while the PNC, the apex policymaking body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has never held elections.
Abbas was elected for a four-year term in 2004 but has remained in office since then, citing logistical, political and security grounds to avoid a fresh mandate. PLC elections were held in January 2006. Much to the shock of Abbas’ party, Fatah, and the Israelis, the Islamist party Hamas won 44 percent of the vote and 74 of the 132 seats, while the ruling Fatah received 41 percent of the vote and won just 45 seats.
Israel intervened immediately to subvert the election result, in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority, by restricting movement between Gaza and the West Bank. It also denied funds to the Palestinian government and detained Hamas ministers, PLC members and their supporters. Hamas was thus confined to Gaza, while Fatah took political control of the West Bank.
This year’s scheduled elections seem to be on course as 2.6 million out a total electorate of 2.8 million have already registered to vote. Candidate registration will take place between March 20 and March 31. Election standards were announced through a presidential decree on February 20 upholding freedom of speech and expression and the release of all prisoners held for political reasons. It also provides the right to campaign freely, receive electoral funding and equal media time.
Hamas announced the release of 45 Fatah prisoners in its custody for “security” breaches and on February 28, Fatah and Hamas agreed on the names of nine judges who would constitute the court that will adjudicate any electoral disputes. As a goodwill gesture, Egypt has also announced that the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt will remain open permanently.
Despite the 15-year hiatus, there is a remarkable absence of election-related enthusiasm in the Palestinian territories. Many residents doubt that elections will actually take place or, if they do, that they will be truly free and fair. Many doubt the 85-year-old Abbas and his candidacy for the president.
Concerns about the fairness of the elections are being fanned by the active intervention of Israel, working along with the Palestinian Authority, to detain potential candidates and political activists in the West Bank. The activists, particularly from Hamas and the left, have been targeted by Israel for the past year. A few hundred have already been arrested while high-profile Hamas members have also been warned not to stand for election. Observers have pointed out that Israel sees Hamas as a national security threat and will disregard all international norms in an attempt to detain and punish its members.
Abbas’ election gambit is perhaps motivated by seeking plaudits from US President Joe Biden, his democratic credentials and his ability to unite various Palestinian groups under his leadership. This, he hopes, will encourage the US president to promote peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
But given Abbas’ dismal 15-year record in office, marked by sustained setbacks for Palestinian interests and a steady expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, it is difficult to believe he can achieve any of this.
Elections will not be smooth sailing for the incumbent president. Even if he can brush aside the challenge from Mohammad Dahlan, who lives in exile, on the grounds that he has been convicted by a Palestinian court, there is the formidable candidacy of Marwan Barghouti.
Serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for the past 19 years for his role in the first and second intifadas, the Hebrew-speaking Barghouti is viewed as a local hero figure largely because he promised to restore the zeal of resistance to the Palestinian agenda. Nasser Al-Qudwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, who is also Abbas’ associate and a former foreign minister, has decided to back Barghouti with a candidate’s list of his own.
The upcoming elections are a dive into uncertainty for all leaders and parties. They remain defined by the discourse of another era as their agenda is largely shaped by self-interest. The candidates hardly have anything to offer the next generation of Palestinians who have come of age in the past two decades and are impatient with the defeats, setbacks, and their leaders’ compromises that have smothered their aspirations.
They want a future that appears beyond the capacity of those seeking high office in the coming elections.
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.