Palestinians to go back to election polls, Hamas permitting

Hamas says elections can only be held under "national accord” under which PA must agree to share control of Palestinian-ruled areas.

February 13, 2011 19:12
Fatah supporters hold PA and Fatah flags

Fatah flags 311. (photo credit: AP)

More than five years after the Hamas movement was swept into power in an upset election victory, the Palestinians will going back to the polls again – or not.

The Palestinian Authority said last week it planned to hold municipal elections this summer and on Saturday announced that it would also conduct voting for president and parliament by September. But Hamas immediately said it would refuse to participate, a stance experts said precludes the prospect of elections for now.

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The toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt in the face of mass protests has spurred a wave of tepid reforms and democratic gestures. But since 2007, the Palestinians are divided, with the Fatah-dominated PA ruling the West Bank and Hamas governing the Gaza Strip. The two have failed to resolve their difference and both claim to be the sole legitimate Palestinian government.

"If the PA goes ahead with elections it will cement the divide for ever. I don't think it wants to do that," Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, told The Media Line. "Elections will also give the West Bank government credibility, which Hamas is not interested in giving it.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas' term officially expired in January 2009, a fact Hamas uses to deny his constitutional authority to call elections. Parliamentary elections were set to take place in January 2010, but were postponed after Hamas made clear that it would thwart them in the Gaza Strip, which has been under its political and military domination since June 2007.

In a statement published Saturday, Hamas said elections could only be held under "national accord,” under which the two sides agree to share control of Palestinian-ruled areas. It asserted that the timing of the announcement was a transparent attempt by the PA to cover its shame following the revelation of secret negotiation documents in which it "traded Jerusalem and the holy sites, sold the nation and conspired against the warriors." Hamas and Fatah are not only at odds over who speaks for the Palestinian people but over how to deal with Israel. Hamas aims to liberate Palestine by violence while Fatah is committed to a negotiated settlement. But the PA was embarrassed last month by leaks of its talks with Israel on the Al-Jazeera satellite channel that showed it was willing to leave parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank under Israeli control.

Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian Central Committee, said Hamas was trying to maintain an undemocratic mechanism by which the outcome is determined before the ballot is cast.

"Hamas wants to sit and divide the cake between itself and Fatah, and then tell the people: 'this is the cake, everybody has his share'," he told The Media Line. "That is why they insist on solving all the problems before the elections, rather than letting the people decide." Abed-Rabbo noted that three years of national unity talks had succeeded in resolving some of the pending issues, but others – namely Hamas' insistence on maintaining its security apparatus in Gaza – remain unresolved. He insisted elections will go ahead with or without Hamas.

"We will try to resolve the remaining issues between now and September, but if the issues are not resolved, they will be addressed by the new Legislative Council and the new government that will be formed after the elections. This is the only possible way to overcome the division." Hamas also has good electoral reasons to delay election day as long as possible.

While it won some 75% of the seats in parliament in the 2006 elections and 45% of the popular vote, Aqtash cited polls showing Hamas garnering as little as 30% of the vote this time around.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's institution-building program helped the West Bank's economy grow an estimated 8% in 2010. The quiet that Hamas opposes has also encouraged Israel to ease its security controls in the West Bank and has encouraged the US and others to step up foreign assistance to the PA.

Like other governments around the region, Fatah leaders have been accused of corruption and inefficiency. But Aqtash said Fayyad is likely to form a new political bloc in the next election that will pick up many protest votes against Fatah that enabled Hamas to win in 2006.

"In all Palestinian polls, Fayyad receives high support, especially among independents," Aqtash said. "I expect he will receive between 20% and 30% of the Palestinian vote." In addition, the voting rules that favored Hamas in 2006 have since been altered. In 2006, parliamentary candidates were elected either directly by district or through a national vote that awarded victories to parties based on their proportion of the total vote. Hamas, more organized than its rival Fatah where candidates ran both as party members and independents, fared much better in the direct district system.

But a presidential decree issued in 2007 did away with the districts, a move that would almost certainly reduce its parliamentary strength, Mkhaimar Abu-Sada, a political scientist from Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told The media Line.

Abu-Sada said the PA election announcement was a tactical move, more a response to "the winds of change" blowing from Tunisia and Egypt than a serious attempt to implement representative democracy.

"The PA wants to embarrass Hamas and put the blame on it for refusing to hold elections," he told The Media Line. "In addition, it’s trying to contain any future popular protest against it, demanding change."

Abu-Sada said municipal elections will likely be held in the West Bank in July, with their outcome determining whether parliamentary and presidential elections will follow. He added that for parliamentary elections to be possible Israel and the US will have to guarantee freedom of movement for candidates across the West Bank, as well as the right of Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem, which Palestinians are claiming as the capital of their future state but Israel has annexed.

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