17th year of a four-year term; Will Abbas hold Palestinian elections?

Originally elected for a four year term meant to end in 2009, the Palestinian President faces pressure to hold elections.

THEN-US vice president Joe Biden gestures as he walks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after their meeting in Ramallah in 2010. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN-US vice president Joe Biden gestures as he walks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after their meeting in Ramallah in 2010.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians on Saturday marked the 16th anniversary of the second presidential election, which saw Mahmoud Abbas win 62.52% of the vote and become the second Palestinian Authority president after Yasser Arafat.
Abbas, now 85, was elected for a four-year term, which expired in 2009. Since then, the Palestinians have not been able to hold another presidential election, mainly due to the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip resulting from the dispute between Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas.
Abbas has recently faced increased pressure, mostly from the international community, to allow Palestinians to cast their ballots in new elections.
According to the Palestinian Basic Law, a president shall not be elected for more than two consecutive terms.
The first Palestinian presidential election was held on January 20, 1996, when Arafat defeated his sole rival, Samiha Khalil, a prominent charity worker and politician from the village of Anabta in the northern West Bank.
Arafat gained 87.1% of the votes, while Khalil, who ran as an independent candidate, got only 12.9%.
In 2005, Abbas ran against six candidates: Mustafa Barghouti, Tayseer Khaled, Bassam a-Salhi, Abdel Karim Shbeir, Hussein Baraka and Abdel Halim al-Ashqar.
Barghouti came in second after he gained 19.48% of the votes.
With Abbas now entering his 17th year of his four-year-term in office, Fatah and Hamas are again talking about the possibility of holding general elections amid ongoing apathy among the Palestinian public.
The Palestinians have also not had a parliamentary election since January 25, 2006, which saw Hamas score a victory over its rivals in Fatah. The parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council, has been effectively paralyzed since Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
In the past 16 years, Abbas has seen four US presidents come and go: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Since 2005, Abbas has also seen Israel hold seven general elections.
Since 2009, Abbas has repeatedly expressed his desire to hold the long overdue elections for the presidency and parliament. His rivals in Hamas have also said that they are keen on holding new elections.
Several “reconciliation” agreements reached by Fatah and Hamas over the past 14 years emphasized the need for holding elections for the PA presidency and parliament. None of these agreements, however, were ever implemented.
In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, Abbas announced that he will set a date for elections in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.
“From the outset, we have believed in democracy as a foundation for the building of our State and society,” Abbas said. “This democratic process was paralyzed by the Hamas coup in 2007, which is an unbearable situation. Therefore, I have decided, upon my return from this international gathering, to announce a date for the holding of general elections in Palestine.”
More than one year has passed since the promise and Abbas has still not set a date for new elections.
In September 2020, exactly one year after Abbas’s UN speech, Fatah and Hamas announced that they have reached agreement to hold general elections within six months. The announcement was made after leaders of the two rival parities held “reconciliation” talks in Istanbul.
Earlier this month, Abbas announced that he received a letter from Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh regarding the proposed general election. Hamas, according to Abbas, agreed to holding “democratic elections with full proportional representation.”
Hamas also agreed to holding separate elections for the PA presidency, the Palestinian Legislative Council and the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestine National Council, Abbas said.
Hamas had previously insisted that the three elections take place simultaneously.
On Saturday, Abbas was scheduled to meet with Dr. Hanna Nasir, chairman of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, to discuss with him setting dates for the three elections.
Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub, who led the “reconciliation” talks with Hamas, said that Abbas will issue a decree regarding the elections shortly after the meeting with Nasir.
After the decree is published, Rajoub added, representatives of several Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, will meet in Cairo to prepare for the elections.
The Palestinian public, meanwhile, remains skeptical about the latest talk about a Fatah-Hamas agreement to hold general elections. Many Palestinians believe that Abbas and Hamas are not really interested in holding new elections.
“The Palestinian Authority does not believe that Hamas would allow a free and democratic election in the Gaza Strip,” a veteran PLO official told The Jerusalem Post. “Hamas, on the other hand, does not believe that the Palestinian Authority would allow Hamas candidates to run in new elections in the West Bank.”
Nabil Amr, a former PA minister and newspaper editor, said that experience has taught the Palestinians to be extremely skeptical about elections.
“We will not believe that the elections took place until the day after,” Amr said. “Let’s wait awhile to see whether the elections actually take place, or whether they will find excuses not to hold them.”
At this stage, it’s not clear whether Abbas has plans to run in a new presidential election.
Some Palestinian officials said over the weekend that it would be a “disaster” for Fatah if Abbas decided to stand at the head of their faction in a presidential election. The officials pointed out that recent public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Palestinians want Abbas to quit.
A public opinion poll published by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research on December showed that 66% of respondents demanded the resignation of Abbas.
“Fatah needs new leaders, new faces,” a senior Fatah activist told the Post. “If we’re going to run with the same leaders, then what’s the point of wasting time, money and energy on a new election?”