By Elliott Abrams, Pressure Points—-
In January of this year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas did something that had not been done since 2006: scheduled an election. Indeed, he scheduled three: an election on 22 May for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the parliament for the West Bank that has been in suspension since 2007; an election on 31 July for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA); and an election on 31 August for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) own sort-of parliamentary body. Whether any of the three will actually take place remained entirely uncertain as of this writing (in late April, 2021).
To understand why these elections may not come off, and why it may be far better that they do not, requires an excursion into those 2006 elections.
In October 2004 Yasser Arafat died and Mahmoud Abbas (his loyal, long-time aide) was selected his successor as Fatah Party and PLO chairman by the PLO big-wigs. Abbas did not need a presidential election to become PA president, but he wanted one. He wanted the legitimacy that a reasonably free election victory could bring him personally, and he wanted to show the US and others that post-Arafat, Palestinians were capable of democratic self-rule. That presidential election was held in January 2005 and it was in fact generally regarded as a reasonable effort. People could and did campaign against Abbas, who ran as the candidate of the ruling Fatah Party and got about two-thirds of the votes (not the 90-plus percent we were accustomed to seeing in many elections in Arab lands. In Tunisia, for example, Ben Ali had himself re-elected in 2004 with 94 per cent of the vote).
Encouraged, Abbas and other PA and Fatah leaders decided next to hold parliamentary elections — for the PLC. These were initially scheduled for the summer of 2005 but postponed until 25 January 2006 due to incompetence and internal divisions within Fatah. In those 2006 elections, Hamas was the victor with 44 per cent of the popular vote versus 41 per cent for Fatah. But because Fatah foolishly ran multiple candidates in some districts, and because Hamas was smart enough to run many attractive candidates (often choosing people not for their militancy but for their level of education or civic work), Hamas had a big victory when it came to PLC seats: 74 out of the total 132 seats and a clear majority. Fatah won only 45 seats.
The United States immediately stated that it would not work with a terrorist group, Hamas. And it went further: because the PA had a partly parliamentary system where the prime minister and other ministers reported to the PLC, the United States refused to deal with the prime minister or with any ministry. It continued to deal with President Abbas, who had separate and independent powers, and with other independent players in the Palestinian system — governors of regions, the intelligence services, the judiciary, and the monetary authority. This awkward and frozen situation lasted until June 2007, when Hamas took full control of Gaza and President Abbas, in the face of this Hamas ‘coup,’ disbanded the PLC and began to rule by decree — as he has now for 14 years.
These events are worth review because history might repeat itself should the parliamentary election scheduled for 22 May come off and be won by Hamas — or even if Hamas makes a strong showing. Because the Palestinian electoral system has been changed to proportional representation, no single party will win the number of seats Hamas got last time. But this also means that even if defeated by Fatah, Hamas (which according to polls in March might win 20-30 percent of the vote) is likely to have a strong role in governing the PA. Thus the fundamental problems that presented themselves in 2006 remain: can there be a democratic election in a non-democratic entity like the PA, half run by Hamas and half by Fatah, neither part run democratically? Should the focus not be, first, on expanding the space for free political debate, and building democratic institutions? Why should the armed terrorist group Hamas be permitted to run in an election as if it were a peaceful and democratic political party — and what are the implications for Palestinian politics, and for Israel, Jordan, and the so-called ‘peace process’ should Hamas win a majority or a strong minority presence? Continue Reading….