Palestine’s democratic deficit

It is as if George W Bush, who became president of the US in 2005 – the same year that Mahmoud Abbas became PA president – was somehow able to by-pass the elections of 2007 and 2011 and cling to office.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas 521 (photo credit: reuters)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas 521
(photo credit: reuters)
Back in New York, accompanied by his prime minister, is the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – or the State of Palestine, as the PA decided to rename itself last April, following its upgrade to “non-member observer state” at the UN General Assembly.
President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah will be attending sessions of the UN General Assembly, and also a meeting of the ad hoc Liaison Committee comprised of donor countries that finance the PA.  A meeting with President Obama is also scheduled, for discussions about the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
What the two presidents are most unlikely to include on their agenda is the decidedly shaky ground on which Abbas is standing, democratically speaking. 
The “State of Palestine” that Abbas is intent on establishing, comprises the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza strip. The convenient fiction, adopted on all sides, is that Abbas as president of the PA can negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians because the PA is the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
But the 1.4 million Palestinians who occupy the Gaza strip are not ruled by Abbas and his government but by Hamas, which does not recognize Mahmoud Abbas as president of the PA, rejects the peace process out of hand, and would not under any circumstances conform to any agreement that Abbas might reach with Israel.  Abbas may propose that Gaza be included as part of a putative sovereign Palestine in a two-state solution, but Hamas would have to be dislodged from Gaza before that could be realized. How is this to be accomplished? That is the elephant in the negotiating room.
Hamas is indubitably an extreme Islamist and terrorist organization which, although winning a majority in the last democratic Palestinian elections held in 2006,  refused to participate with Fatah in a national unity government, and seized power in Gaza in a bloody coup d’état. Nevertheless it has a certain point in challenging the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency of the PA.
After Yasser Arafat's death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas was endorsed by Fatah's Revolutionary Council as its preferred candidate for the presidential election scheduled for January 9, 2005. Although Hamas boycotted the ballot, Abbas was elected with a convincing majority as president of the PA for a four-year term. His term of office therefore ended on January 9, 2009.
Hamas maintained that from the moment Abbas’s mandate expired, Aziz al-Dewik, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, should have become interim president until new elections could be held.
At the time, Fatah argued that the Palestinian election law calls for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously, four years after the date of the later of those. Since parliamentary elections were held in 2006, a year after the presidential ones, new elections for both should have been held in January 2010. And indeed, in one of a wearisome succession of abortive reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah held in Egypt in March 2009, the two sides agreed to hold joint elections by January 25, 2010. 
They never happened. The PA government decided to postpone them, arguing that it wanted to safeguard national unity. As a matter of interest, in December 2010 the Palestinian High Court ruled that once the cabinet calls for elections, it does not have authority to cancel them. So the cancellation of the elections was itself illegal.
Subsequent intra-Palestinian political disputes between Fatah and Hamas meant that presidential and parliamentary elections were postponed time after time. Finally, in November 2011 an election date of May 4, 2012 was agreed between Fatah and Hamas. Once again, however, a squabble erupted, and a further delay was announced. The election would now be held some time after June 2012.
In February 2011, following the resignation of Saeb Erekat as chief negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the PA executive committee announced that elections would be held before October that year. The reaction? Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, said that Abbas did not have the legal right to announce elections.
"Hamas will not take part in this election. We will not give it legitimacy. And we will not recognize the results."
It did not take place.
In October 2011, Abbas sent a further proposal to Hamas for a general election, preferably to be held in early 2012. The proposal was rejected.
Following last year’s upgrade of Palestine to non-member observer state status in the UN, the PA proposed that general elections should follow in 2013, in line with the latest unity talks between Fatah and Hamas. But no date has yet been set, and an election this year now seems impossible.
Meanwhile, Abbas sails serenely on, acknowledged on all sides as President of the PA, or President of the State of Palestine, depending on one's preference.  It is as if George W Bush, who became president of the United States in 2005 – the same year that Mahmoud Abbas became PA president – was somehow able to by-pass the elections of 2007 and 2011 and cling to office, and was still US President. The analogy may be fanciful, it could never happen – within the United States.  But it virtually has happened within the Palestinian body politic, and it illustrates how far along the democratic road Palestinians have yet to travel.
In the meantime, as president de facto, if not in all eyes de jure, Abbas continues to formulate a new PA government from time to time. After weeks of waiting and speculating, an incoming administration – the 16th since the formation of the PA – was sworn in on September 19. It turned out to be a carbon copy of the outgoing one. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his 24 cabinet ministers, who together had formed the previous government, were sworn in anew in front of the president in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
If the president’s own legitimacy is questionable, how stands the government that he swears in? Or any agreements that he reaches on thorny political issues?  Or his authority in respect of that section of territory over which his writ does not run?
Palestine’s democratic deficiencies may yet prove to be a hurdle too high for the peace process to surmount.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)