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Palestinian elections: What is happening?

The deadline for submitting lists for the Palestinian Legislative Council outlines a clear difference in profiles of candidates. Gearing up for the elections has shaken the Palestinian scene and highlighted the strong dichotomy among the different groups.
A Palestinian artist adds the final touches to a mural painting calling on people to vote during the upcoming elections (legislative in May and presidential in July) in a street in Gaza City, on March 24, 2021.

The general Palestinian legislative elections due to take place May 22 has shaken up the still internal Palestinian waters. While different polls are predicting that the Fatah movement is getting slightly more votes than any other party, after 15 years without general elections and 1 million new voters, no poll can be truly trusted to reflect what will come out at the ballot boxes.

While many, including leaders of regional countries and the international community, are worried about the repeat of the 2006 elections, it is important to note that the Palestinian election’s law was changed by presidential decree in September 2007 from a combined national and regional vote to a single national vote based on the proportional system. Had the current law existed in 2006 Hamas would not have been able to monopolize the power that had caused the Gaza-West Bank split.

After years of deadlock, the current elections are a result of a political breakthrough championed by two former cellmates — Jibril Rajoub, who is now the secretary of the Fatah movement, and Saleh Aruri, deputy head of the Hamas political bureau.

The breakthrough was translated in an exchange of messages between Fatah and Hamas in which the latter accepted the insistence of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to hold elections consecutively and not concurrently. The reason for Hamas agreeing to the insistence of President Abbas was due to their own internal decision not to compete for the office of president. They had come to that conclusion due to their understanding that neither regional nor international powers would tolerate that. Having reached that conclusion, it made little difference in whether legislative and presidential elections take place at the same time or at different times.

The Hamas decision was also encouraged by a clear commitment by Fatah and all other PLO factions of the need for national unity, especially at a time that the entire Palestinian liberation struggle was facing an existential question. Fatah and Hamas agreed initially to have a joint list in the upcoming elections with Fatah having a slight edge, including the promise that Fatah’s top candidate will be supported for speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The importance of this is due to the fact that the Palestinian basic law states that in case the president of the Palestinian National Authority dies or is unable to continue, the speaker becomes president for 60 days until new elections take place.

The Rajoub/Aruri agreements were the main impetus that caused the breakthrough by the presidential decrees that have paved the way for legislative elections on May 22, presidential elections on July 30 and the competition of Palestine National Council by Aug. 31.

While the elections are set to take place as designed, the joint list has not fared well especially among the grassroots of the two main factions. In fact, within Fatah, the joint list was sharply criticized by Fatah Central Committee member Nasser al-Qudwa who called it “opportunist” and “self-serving.”

The joint list was also sharply rejected by the Israelis as expressed during the ruckus meeting held by head of the Israeli intelligence Nadav Argaman at the presidential quarters. Reports from the meeting state that Abbas politely rejected the interference by telling his Israeli intelligence guest “drink your coffee and leave.”

The joint list was further dealt a heavy blow by a public opinion poll taken in early March by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research that showed the joint list not getting more than 44% of the total votes, while if they run separate both Fatah and Hamas would get a total of over 70%.

Seeing the joint list evaporating, the effort is now focused on the post-elections coalitions and the shape of the new Palestinian government. Hamas had three choices in deciding who to nominate for the PLC elections: their top leaders, independent individuals close to Hamas or an agreed-upon joint list. With the joint list gone, Hamas appears to have chosen to nominate their top leaders while keeping the idea of nominating individuals to the new Palestinian government from independent candidates that are close to them but who are not card-holding members. Hamas understands that its top leaders simply can’t be part of a Palestinian government while the conditions of the quartet are not being changed.

Contrary to Hamas, the Fatah movement is not planning to nominate its top leaders. Abbas has said that no member of the central committee, the revolutionary council or current ambassadors will be nominated.

Abbas has also said he wanted more women and young leaders to be on the Fatah list. For Fatah, feeling confident that they have guaranteed the speakership of the PLC and the presidency, sources told Al-Monitor that their candidates will be the more popular Palestinians and not necessarily members of the Fatah top brass.

By nominating professionals and popular individuals they expect to be able to keep their movement as it has always wanted to be until a genuinely sovereign state is established — a movement for liberation and not a political party.

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