PALESTINIANS living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are bracing themselves for a period of political uncertainty after a decision by the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to postpone parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for 22 May. They would have been the first since 2006. His decision has been criticised both by his opponents and by some within his own Fatah movement. Presidential elections planned for July have also been postponed.
Demonstrations demanding that polling goes ahead have taken place in the Palestinian territories. Tension is rising: there have been numerous clashes in the West Bank over recent days between Palestinians on the one side, and Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers on the other.
President Abbas said that his decision was based on the fact that Israel would not guarantee that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem would be allowed to vote. “We will not relinquish our right to Jerusalem and the rights of the people to exercise their legitimate democratic rights,” he said.
But Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent Christian within the Palestinian Establishment, took issue with the President’s logic. In a statement posted on Twitter, she said: “The excitement, enthusiasm and energy with which the Palestinian people in occupied territories welcomed the prospect of elections were instantly transformed into profound disappointment and anger. Jerusalem is the essence of defiance, not a pretext for subverting democracy.”
The strong impression among Palestinians is that President Abbas’s decision to postpone elections was based on anxiety about the possible results. Indications are that the Gaza Strip-based Hamas movement would win more votes than Fatah, as was the case in 2006: an outcome that led to fierce clashes between the two. The Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, accused President Abbas of postponing the elections “without any convincing justification”.
A Hamas official hinted that the postponement could end the recent truce between the two rival factions because it was a move “against the path of partnership and national consensus”.
Second, President Abbas faces direct challenges to his own leadership from disaffected Fatah figures, including Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Qidwa. The former is imprisoned in Israel; the latter is a nephew of the late Yasser Arafat. They are both hugely popular. Mr Barghouti, referring to President Abbas’s reference to Israel’s failure to guarantee voting in East Jerusalem, said: “We should not give the occupiers a veto to stop the election process.”
With the prospect of an even longer period without elections, and criticism of President Abbas — in his mid-eighties — on the rise, the outlook is disconcerting. Above all, the opportunity for a new generation of Palestinians untainted by corruption allegations to take over the reins of power has passed.
The Palestinian Christian commentator Daoud Kuttab, writing on the Al Monitor news portal, said: “Abbas and Fatah might have preserved the status quo for now, but in the long run they have caused a deep wound in the Palestinian movement and in the trust people might have in their own leadership.”
The EU and the UN have expressed concern at the cancellation of the elections, urging President Abbas to set a new date as soon as possible.