Will elections help or hurt Palestinian reconciliation?

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The decree issued by Mahmoud Abbass, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has pushed the conflict between PLO’s main faction, Fateh, and the Islamic Hamas movement to yet another stage. While many consider this move very risky for the future of Palestine, others feel that it is the only democratic way out of the impasse.

It has been known for a long time that October 25 was the constitutional deadline for the current Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy as an elected body. The Palestinian Basic Law, a sort of interim constitution, clearly calls for simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. The unexpected death of Yasser Arafat and the untimely presidential elections 60 days after that, as per the Basic Law, created a problem in that in order to hold presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time, one of two things was needed. Either the parliamentary elections would be held before the end of the regular term or the presidential elections would be delayed.

Cutting short the term of the January 2006 elections was seen as political difficult due to the conflict with Hamas whose supporters won a majority of seats. Delaying the presidential elections was chosen as the lesser of two evils. Initially Hamas leaders began questioning Abbas’ legitimacy after January 25, 2009. But this issue was resolved at the Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks and Hamas agreed not to question Abbas’ legitimacy. Others have, and also tried to delegitimise the Fayyad government, but these were few and uninfluential voices.

Election dates came up throughout the spring and summer as the Egyptians were told clearly by Abbas and his colleagues that he would not be able to delay the elections again. At bilateral talks, Hamas leaders did not show keenness to honour this date and insisted on a six-month delay. In response, the Egyptians incorporated the Islamists’ request in the hope that this would seal the reconciliation deal.

The Ramallah leadership was unhappy with the election date. While it might have been possible to delay the presidential elections and have them held simultaneously with the parliamentary elections, this time it would be hard to justify a further delay. Abbas’ legitimacy and mandate being questioned more and more meant that he needed the elections in order to be able to lead, both internally and externally.

Pressure from Egypt, coupled with what seemed like a commitment from Hamas to actually hold these joint elections in June 2009, allowed Abbas and his Fateh movement to reluctantly agree to the Egyptian proposal. It wasn’t clear how the extension would be legally justified, but it was agreed that if there is agreement between the PLO factions and the Islamists, then such a short delay would be publicly acceptable as a price for unity.

Hamas’ procrastination in signing the Egyptian bridging proposal left the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah with little choice but to issue the decree. Since it normally takes three months to prepare for any election, Abbass called in Hanna Nasser, the head of the Independent Elections Commission, and instructed him to prepare for the elections to be held on their constitutional date, January 25, 2010.

It remains to be seen whether the elections will take place on time or, if they do, whether they will be held in Gaza as well as the West Bank. The inability to hold the elections in Gaza or boycott by important sectors of the West Bank population and political factions will certainly hurt the Palestinian cause even if it legitimizes the Ramallah leadership.

Fateh leaders, including the imprisoned central committee member Marwan Barghouthi, are still hoping that the coming months will witness a breakthrough allowing for full Palestinian participation in the exercise of this constitutional right. Others are not so optimistic, saying that such an outcome would make the Gaza-West Bank split permanent.

The continuation of the Palestinian split has certainly made a united Palestinian stand to negotiate an end to the occupation difficult. Islamist leaders, whose ultimate goal is an Islamic state, are not in a rush to simply end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and therefore have no problem waiting in order to reach their ultimate goal.

Palestinian leaders wishing to continue peace negotiations insist that the majority of Palestinians wants a peaceful end to the occupation within the 1967 borders. In order to attain the aims of this peace-loving Palestinian majority, the Palestinian leadership feels it needs a legal mandate to continue the peace talks.

The elections are therefore mandatory if the desires of the majority of Palestinians can be converted into a policy that can be implemented.

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