Palestinian Elections 2021: Reconciling Competing Motives

On January 15, 2021, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) issued a decreecalling for legislative, presidential, and National Council elections before the end of the year. This move raised skepticism both at home and abroad about his motive, capacity, and competence to implement his own executive order, particularly since no presidential elections have been held in Palestine since Abbas was last elected on January 9, 2005. Nonetheless, the presidential directive specified that parliamentary elections for a new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) would be scheduled for May 22, to be followed by presidential elections on July 31. A separate and third poll on August 31 would select new members of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the legislative arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Central Elections Commission, the independent agency established in 2002 to manage and supervise the organization and implementation of presidential and legislative elections in Palestine, immediately set the electoral wheels in motion. It published the legal electoral calendar for campaigning and voting, initiated voter registration procedures in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, started the nomination process for candidates, and made logistical arrangements to invite international observers to monitor the elections and vouch for their integrity and transparency.

Palestinian Factions Endorse the Process

The call for elections by President Abbas was cautiously welcomed by Palestinian political factions, including his foremost competitor Hamas, which had won the last parliamentary election in January 2006. In a subsequent statement to the media, the Gaza-based Hamas highlighted its cooperation with the Fatah-led PA in recent months to facilitate the upcoming elections and expressed its support for “free elections in which voters can express themselves without pressure and without restrictions, in all fairness and transparency.” On January 30, a member of the Hamas Political Bureau, Khalil al-Hayya, reiterated his movement’s support of the success of the 2021 elections, highlighting its commitment to participate in the democratic process and, more importantly, “to accept the results of the elections.”

The call for elections by President Abbas was cautiously welcomed by Palestinian political factions, including his foremost competitor Hamas, which had won the last parliamentary election in January 2006.

Immediate declarations of support by Fatah and Hamas led to the convening of the Palestinian National Dialogue on February 8-9, 2021. The two-day summit, hastily brokered by Cairo, was attended by 14 Palestinian factions in a renewed attempt to eliminate long-standing internal differences and mistrust between them and to have agreement on broad elections guidelines and procedures, including security arrangements and adjudication of potential electoral disputes. In addition to Fatah and Hamas, participating factions included representatives of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which boycotted past elections in 1996 and 2006, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and nine other groups.

In a joint statement issued at the end of the Cairo meeting, the participating factions agreed to the following fundamental points and mechanisms regarding the upcoming elections:

  1. To abide by the framework and timetable set by President Abbas’s decree of January 15, 2021, regarding legislative, presidential, and PNC elections.
  2. To hold elections in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
  3. To accept the results of the elections.
  4. To call for the formation of an Electoral Cases Court, which will include judges from all three main Palestinian regions, to monitor the elections and adjudicate all potential disagreements.
  5. To ensure that security at all polling stations will be solely vested in uniformed Palestinian police in accordance with the law.
  6. To allow freedom of expression to secure a free and fair election campaign.
  7. To release all political prisoners.

The intra-Palestinian talks in Cairo were welcomed by both Ramallah, seat of the PA, and Gaza, seat of Hamas. The head of Hamas’s Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyyeh, exchanged congratulations with President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the success of the Cairo talks. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, who happened to be meeting with fellow Arab League foreign ministers in town, characterized the Palestinian sessions as “successful and hopeful” and thanked the Egyptian government for facilitating the dialogue.

The results of the Palestinian talks in Egypt were also well received by the international community. The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, welcomed the dialogue conducted on February 8-9, commenting that the meeting “marks an important advancement towards the holding of elections and Palestinian national unity.” He added, “The UN will continue to support the Palestinian people as well as preparations towards the holding of elections.”

Abbas’s Competing Motives: Between Biden and a Hard Place

Undoubtedly, aside from the futility of holding “free and fair” elections under protracted Israeli military occupation, to quote Azmi Bishara,1 the ultimate question on the minds of many Palestinians today is the real motive behind President Abbas’s rather sudden decision to hold legislative and presidential elections. As is widely known, there is no consensus regarding this subjective question whether in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or Jerusalem. The answer seems to be in the eye of the beholder. The mainstream Fatah camp that is generally supportive of Abbas tends to attribute the motive to his adherence to the aspirations and wishes of the Palestinian public. The opposition to Abbas, whether secular or Islamist, doubts his seriousness and fidelity to public opinion and views his current motive as essentially political, aimed at saving his own sagging political fortunes and betting on the change of administration in Washington as his God-sent life preserver.

It is quite true that Palestinian public opinion has been relentless in its demand for legislative and presidential elections over the past 15 years. Indeed, the last poll conducted during December 8-11, 2020, by the authoritative Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), confirms that three-quarters of those surveyed supported holding such elections. At the same time, most of them remained skeptical, with only 32 percent expecting such elections to actually take place soon in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, despite overwhelming skepticism and disappointment in their leadership, including by potential candidates in these elections, most Palestinians endorsed the process and expressed willingness to participate in it, if and when it would take place. Indeed, thus far, “more than 2.6 million, or 93.3 percent of Palestinian eligible voters, had registered by the deadline….”

This is quite interesting considering the fact that Palestinian society is deeply divided into two main camps, with 38 percent showing preference for Fatah and 34 percent for its principal rival, Hamas. With regards to the presidency, 66 percent of the Palestinians polled demanded the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas, yet 43 percent still gave him their vote, compared to 50 percent to Hamas’s potential candidate Ismail Haniyyeh. Public support tended to shift in favor of Fatah once the ruling party in Ramallah managed to field a different candidate than Abbas. For example, if Marwan Barghouti were to run, the PSR survey shows that he would win 61 percent of the vote, compared with 37 percent for Haniyyeh. That is a significantly better performance by Barghouti, who is currently serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail.

Although key pieces of the complex Palestinian election puzzle seem to be falling into place, there appears to be competing, even incompatible, motives surrounding the abrupt decision by Abbas to pursue national elections.

Although key pieces of the complex Palestinian election puzzle seem to be falling into place, there appears to be competing, even incompatible, motives surrounding the abrupt decision by Abbas to pursue national elections. Many analysts are diligently seeking to pinpoint what specifically motivated him, at this precarious juncture in Palestinian politics, to undergo this metamorphosis and suddenly jump on the election bandwagon by endorsing a process he has shunned for more than 15 years. This epiphany on the part of the Palestinian president has clearly generated widespread skepticism both at home and abroad due to the competing nature of his likely motives.

Another school of thought questions Abbas’s personal motives and perceives his born-again commitment to elections as a function of political change in Washington. In its January 15 report about Abbas’s announcement in Ramallah, The New York Times characterized his decision as “a bid to lift his standing with the Biden administration.” Writing in Foreign Policy 10 days later, Joshua Mitnick was even more blunt in his assessment that Abbas “finally agreed to do so this month, but it wasn’t the domestic nudging that prompted the decision; it was the administration change in Washington.” Indeed, as reported by Reuters on February 8, many Palestinian analysts, unlike his hard-line Fatah supporters, believe the elections “are primarily an attempt by Abbas to show his democratic credentials to the new administration of President Joe Biden, with whom Abbas wants to reset relations after they reached a new low under President Donald Trump.”

As privately conveyed to this author, the Palestinian president was extremely puzzled and disturbed by the sudden about-face and subsequent unexplained animosity that Trump levelled at him, in spite of the early rapport the two leaders displayed in their first two meetings. Now, Abbas is quite anxious to resume normal diplomatic relations with Washington in a last-ditch effort to give the isolated PA a new lease on life.

Israeli analysts, who are quite critical of Abbas, are also fully aware of the current predicament the Palestinian leadership faces. A recent report by Yossi Kuperwasser of the neoconservative  and pro-settler Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs accuses the PA and Fatah of resorting to elections “to prevent further erosion of the PA’s status” caused by the so-called Abraham Accords, and to secure the promises made by the new Biden Administration “to recommence economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority.”

Clearly, Abbas is fully aware of Palestinian public opinion regarding elections and specific demands for substantive internal political change, including calls for his resignation. At the same time, the PA president is quite intrigued and uplifted by what he perceives as positive signs from the new administration in Washington. Therefore, as he attempts to reconcile the two contradictory demands, he feels caught between Biden and a hard place. Will he be able to reconcile the American demands for rehabilitating and democratizing the Palestinian Authority under his leadership, while simultaneously opening up the decision-making process to younger and more assertive potential leaders? Abbas is finally facing the ultimate challenge of his political life.

1 Source is in Arabic.