Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement that elections would be held this spring and summer prompted a collective eye roll in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At least at the beginning. Then Abbas issued a decree ordering national elections to be held — May 22 for Parliament, July 31 for the presidency, and Aug. 31 for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — highlighting some level of seriousness by the 85-year-old president who has led the Palestinian Authority (PA) and PLO since 2004.
Abbas, however, will not allow these elections to go forward unless he is certain that Fatah will not lose to rival Hamas like it did in the 2006 legislative elections, and more importantly, that he will be reelected president. In an effort to control the outcome of both elections, he reached out to Hamas, which agreed not to run a candidate for the presidency.
These agreements took place in Cairo in February — under the auspices of other regional countries’ security services — when Fatah and Hamas agreed to terms on advancing the elections process. This meeting ostensibly made strides in bridging the split between them, but neither side has agreed to any political or territorial concessions. In addition, their arrangement to split the electoral pie, rather than attempt to reconcile years of hostility and division, speaks to a lack of will to change the political status quo.
With about two weeks left to submit lists of individuals running for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abbas and his loyalists are doing everything feasible to ensure the party runs on a united platform — and not as two or three lists, as is evident at the moment.
Nasser al-Kidwa, the late Yasser Arafat’s nephew and member of Fatah’s Central Committee, as well as a former envoy to the UN, has internally criticized Abbas’ authoritarian control of Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, and the PLO in recent years, and rumors have swirled for months that he was putting together an independent slate to run in parliamentary elections in the spring. These rumors grew stronger when he was absent from the Central Committee’s Feb. 12 meeting — and were confirmed by al-Kidwa himself in late February at an online symposium hosted by Birzeit University.
Al-Kidwa’s remarks prompted Abbas to summon him to the Muqata’a, the presidential compound, in Ramallah where, sources told me, they had a heated discussion. The PA president asked al-Kidwa to backtrack and reiterated a threat he made earlier to Fatah members that he would “shoot” any member who runs on an independent platform. Al-Kidwa did not back down and said that if Fatah wished to expel him from the party, then it should do so. Presumably, Abbas meant his comment metaphorically, but as one Fatah official told me, it also sends a clear message to members that the party can exercise violence toward peers who are willing to go their own way.
On March 11, al-Kidwa was ejected from Fatah. Financial support for the Yasser Arafat Foundation, which he heads, was promptly ceased; even his government-issued car that he uses for official business was taken away.
Abbas’ authoritarian attempt to keep the party united has backfired, lending credence to members who have long tired of his solitary policymaking and want to break free from his chokehold. This is most evident from the internal turmoil between the aging leadership headed by Abbas and the younger generation that has grown weary of the political stalemate and dire economic situation. His lack of vision on how to move forward, coupled with allegations of corruption in his inner circle and family, have also contributed to Palestinians’ frustration and dismay with Abbas’ leadership.
Abbas has also managed to alienate his own base by holding the reins of power in everything from Fatah to the PA and the PLO. These days, he is believed to rely on a few yes-men, namely Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh and PA general intelligence head Majed Faraj. This small circle of confidantes has full access to Abbas, while members of Fatah’s old guard and its younger generation are either shunned or sidelined, creating further friction within the party. Those who don’t toe the line are often sent into early retirement or ousted in unfair elections, such as the last one held within the PLO five years ago.
His archnemesis, former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and then convicted in absentia of corruption. There is little hope that Abbas and Dahlan, who now lives in the United Arab Emirates and enjoys close ties to its ruling family, will reconcile before the elections, ensuring that the Fatah vote will be split. The latter’s supporters had hoped to join al-Kidwa’s slate, but al-Kidwa was unequivocal — during the Birzeit symposium — that Dahlan would not be welcome. This has not swayed Dahlan’s supporters from the Democratic Reform Bloc, which he leads, to express interest in putting together their own slate for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. According to a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between 8-11 December 2020, if “Mohammed Dahlan forms his own independent list, he is more likely to take away from the official Fatah list about one-fifth of Fatah voters, particularly in the Gaza Strip,” where he still holds considerable sway.
But the Abbas-Dahlan dispute isn’t the only crisis threatening to wreck the movement. Abbas has not paved the road for a successor, and he faces a challenge from Marwan Barghouti, the popular Fatah leader imprisoned in Israel who says he may run for the presidency on July 31. Successive polls have shown that Barghouti is the only candidate who can beat both Abbas and Hamas political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh, if Haniyeh were to announce his candidacy. The most recent survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research also found that running against Haniyeh, Barghouti would get 61% of the vote, making him a (if not the) threat to establishment members. It also showed that a united Fatah slate would get 38% of the vote, while Hamas would get 34% of the vote. An independent list headed by Barghouti would get 25% of the vote, while an official Fatah list would get 19%, the survey further showed.
In February, al-Sheikh paid a visit to Barghouti in prison — an unusual move that was permitted by Israeli authorities. According to The New Arab (Al Araby Al Jadeed), al-Sheikh tried to convince Barghouti not to run in the presidential election or to head an independent list for the Palestinian Legislative Council vote. While Barghouti has thus far remained silent on whether he would lead the slate, time is running short ahead of the March 31 deadline when all slates must be registered, and al-Kidwa is hoping Barghouti’s support would attract more candidates to the slate and galvanize voters.
During the Birzeit discussion, al-Kidwa said that the platform will welcome not only Fatah breakaways, who are disenchanted with the party and fear it will not reform any time soon, but also civil society leaders, independents, and members of former leftist parties who — apart from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — have little support among constituents.
Barghouti’s close associates tell me they believe that Abbas’ Fatah faction will try to control the message behind Barghouti’s possible presidential run by suggesting he is trying to score a Get Out of Jail Free card. Barghouti is aware of the powerful image that will be conveyed to the world should he be elected president while he is in prison. His supporters hope such an image would pressure Israel into releasing him, since the practicality of governing from his cell is unclear. Having a (15-year) incumbent running against a political prisoner will make for a fascinating election: Should Barghouti run and win, it could change the political landscape and upset the balance of power. Those behind the new slate hope the elections will also solve some of the PA, Fatah, and the PLO’s institutional and structural problems — the very same problems that allowed Abbas to be at their helm for so long.
These are the same problems that have led al-Kidwa and others to run on an independent slate, disenchanted with how far the Fatah goalposts have shifted since the Oslo Accord was signed in 1993. Supporters of the new slate are angered by the fact that Fatah has become “one person,” as they put it, and want to see new strategies to end Israel’s occupation and achieve independence without simply a facade for a state, which has only provided salaries for officials and cracked down on dissidents. Others want to see an end to the rampant corruption in Fatah and the establishment of a pluralistic institution that once existed — no easy task, even for al-Kidwa and his supporters.
However, questions remain over whether elections will, in fact, take place and whether both parties can guarantee they will be free and fair in the respective areas they administer. Hamas has a poor track record of tolerating dissent or even different political opinions, while Abbas has forbidden anyone from the party’s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council from submitting their candidacy for the slate. The ensuing drama has prompted Abbas to use COVID-19 as a justification for possibly delaying elections yet again.
“It was a little suspicious that changes in the election law were made on the eve of the decree (to announce the elections),” Ghassan al-Khatib, a former PA minister, told me. “Most of these changes added restrictions to the possibility of running. This includes changing the age of candidacy, the high fees involved, and the fact that anybody who wants to run has to resign from his or her job,” he explained.
An amendment made to the election law stipulates that anyone who wants to run in a slate must get written consent from their workplace to resign. This means people who work in NGOs, think tanks, and academic institutions will lose their livelihood to run. There is also a fear that permission to resign will not be granted to those Abbas doesn’t want to run, effectively letting the sitting president handpick who will compete against his party.
Although more than 90% of eligible voters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have registered with the Central Elections Commission, which is tasked with organizing the ballot, there is still room for the elections to be canceled. Al-Khatib believes there’s a 50% chance it will be. Many Palestinians fear that there are too many obstacles — existing and new — for the elections to be held. Evidence of voter registration tampering emerged in February, and while the issue was rectified, it marked a bad omen of things to come. Islamic Jihad has already announced that it will boycott the elections, while Hamas is facing obstacles to forming an electoral list in the West Bank, where both the PA and Israel have cracked down on its members. It’s also unclear whether Fatah and Hamas will release detained political members from their respective prisons — so far, both have denied that they hold such prisoners. And then, of course, there’s Israel, which has remained silent on whether it will allow elections to take place in East Jerusalem, which it controls. In the meantime, tensions continue to flare between the two rivals, threatening to hinder the vote, and with it, Palestinian aspirations for much-needed change.