Briefing on Palestinian elections

Tuesday 26th January 2021

Following an agreement between Fatah and Hamas the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has announced that elections will take place on May 22 for the Palestinian parliament (the Palestine Legislative Council) and on July 31 for the Presidency.

There will also be an election in August for the Palestine Liberation Organisation which also represents all the Palestinian refugees living abroad.

This is the third time that an agreement has been reached between the two parties to hold elections, but on all the previous occasions one or other side has pulled out of the agreement before the elections could be held.

One would not need to be very cynical to conclude that obstacles were put in the way of an election by the party that thought it was likely to lose if the election was held at that time. 

This time it is the election of President Biden that has put pressure on both sides to get their act together. It is clear that the US government would be less likely help a Palestinian government that has long outlived its democratic mandate.

The last national elections in Palestine were in 2006.  Hamas, fighting an election for the first time, were the surprise winners. Many commentators said it was a vote against the Fatah old guard, accused of being out of touch and sometimes corrupt, rather than a positive vote for the policies of Hamas. Fatah were not helped by putting up rival Fatah lists in some areas. Since 2006 there have only been municipal elections where support has seesawed regularly between Fatah and Hamas.

But organising national elections poses enormous political and logistical problems.  People have to vote in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control, in East Jerusalem under Israeli control and in Gaza under Hamas rule. Will the Israelis let people vote in Jerusalem? Will international election observers be allowed into Gaza?  Will there be a single list from each party?

The most recent poll in December predicted that Fatah would lead in the parliamentary elections by 38 to 34%, but also that Hamas would win the presidency by 50 to 43% if the Fatah candidate was the 85-year-old president Mahmoud Abbas.

Jailed Barghouthi to stand

The current prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh would fare better as the Fatah candidate tying with Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh at 47% each. However, if the jailed Fatah politician Marwan Barghouthi stands in the election – as he intends to – then he would beat Haniyeh and Abbas either separately or together. 

In every case Fatah would win more support in the West Bank and Hamas would win more in Gaza, but Barghouthi is the only candidate who wins strong support in both.

The parliamentary election will be held under a new electoral system with a single national list for the whole country, as in Israel. In the 2006 election Hamas won one seat more than Fatah in the national list but that turned into a 29-seat majority as a result of the district lists where Fatah shot itself in the foot by allowing rival Fatah lists to stand in some areas.

This time both parties have welcomed the election and supported the new electoral system. There has been widespread speculation that they might even agree on a joint Fatah-Hamas list, which will make it far more certain that the election will go ahead, but will give the voters less effective choice. None of the other parties won more than three seats in the 2006 election.

Fatah is a secular party which sees itself both as a national liberation movement and a party of the left with links to social-democratic parties in Europe. Hamas is an Islamic party with links to the Muslim Brotherhood and a more recent history of armed resistance, though in the last few years it has been sporadically restraining other armed groups to enforce a Gaza ceasefire.  

If the two parties submit a joint list, the most important unknown factor will be the attitude of the West to the outcome of the election. Will the West accept the result if Hamas wins or if a joint Fatah-Hamas government is formed?  It was the refusal of the UK and other Western countries to accept the result of the 2006 election that led to the split and the Hamas take-over of Gaza and the 14-year blockade and the deep suspicion that still exists between the two parties.  Have we learnt the lesson? Or will we do the same thing again?

Public Opinion Poll No (78) 27 December 2020 Palestinian Centre for Policy and Social Research http://www.pcpsr.org/en

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