Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), announced in January that Palestinians would be called to the polls on 22 May for the first elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PA’s legislature, since 2006. Presidential elections were to follow in July.
Abbas is now 16 years into a four-year term, which began in 2005. Several previous attempts to hold elections had never come to pass, especially after Hamas, the Islamist group, ousted Fatah, Abbas’s party, from the Gaza Strip following a legislative election in 2006 which Hamas won.
Abbas’s decree that elections would be held had raised hopes that the PA could – finally – gain a little renewed democratic legitimacy. Some also expected that a vote would allow a younger generation of Palestinian leaders to come to the fore, in anticipation of a shift in power away from Abbas, 85, and his inner circle.
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Yet these hopes were dashed when Abbas once again indefinitely delayed the elections last month, under the spurious pretext that Israel would not permit Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, administered under Israeli civil law, to vote. In fact, the PA could likely have found means to let Palestinian Jerusalemites vote, such as inviting them to travel to areas under its control.
Had the elections been held, they might have finally politically united the West Bank and Gaza, the geographically separate territories home to roughly 4.6 million Palestinians. Both have been ruled by separate governments – Abbas’s Fatah in the parts of the West Bank under partial or full Palestinian control; Hamas in Gaza – since 2007, though they are considered to be occupied by Israel by most international parties.
The elections probably wouldn’t have been able to happen under current conditions, as a result of ongoing fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas, which has killed nearly 200 Palestinians and 10 Israelis this month. Still, both votes were cancelled before the latest flare-up for unrelated reasons.
Abbas almost certainly called off the elections because his party was on course to lose, Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, a think tank in Ramallah, told me. Fatah had split into at least three rival factions which threatened to leech support away from Abbas’s main list. Fatah could have been forced into messy power-sharing negotiations with the splinter groups or Hamas, its perennial rival and the victor of the last legislative elections. Abbas would probably also have lost the presidential election, perhaps to Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic leader currently serving a prison sentence for murder in an Israeli jail, who had announced his intention to run for president.
The personalisation of power in the PA points to a problem further down the line. Political scientists have long believed that autocratic regimes which concentrate power in a single person are vulnerable to instability if the leader suddenly dies – more so if there is no clear plan for a transfer of power.
Abbas, reportedly a heavy smoker, is in his ninth decade. His leadership has, at most, a few more years in it. His current inability to contemplate handing over or sharing power could signal a looming crisis of succession if he dies or is deposed, according to observers I spoke to. “Abbas is hanging on by a thread,” Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli analyst, told me. “He survives only by not holding elections.”
For most governments, the possibility of a leadership vacuum is bad enough. But for the Palestinians, the stakes of a void at the top of their government are higher than most. The possibilities run from a weakening of the control of PA security forces and widespread unrest erupting in the West Bank – perhaps comparable to the ethnic violence in Israel proper or heavy fighting in Gaza of the past weeks – to the PA’s whole or partial collapse.
“What Abbas has done is essentially make it very difficult for a peaceful transition to take place after [he goes],” Shikaki said.
The past week has shown how quickly instability across Israel and Palestine can spiral into violence, with the primary victims always civilians. The Palestinian elections could have been a chance to remedy a small part of the Palestinians’ problem, if not its primary underlying cause.