The decision on 30 April by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “postpone” this month’s legislative election, which would have been the first in 15 years, will deepen the political division in occupied Palestine and could, potentially, signal the collapse of the Fatah Movement, at least in its current form.
Unlike the previous Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006, the big story this time was not the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. Many rounds of talks in recent months between representatives of Palestine’s two largest political parties had already sorted out many of the details regarding the now-cancelled voting process, which was scheduled to begin on 22 May.
Both Fatah and Hamas have much to gain from an election, with the former relishing the opportunity to restore its long-dissipated legitimacy as it has ruled over the occupied territories through its dominance of the Palestinian Authority with no democratic mandate whatsoever. Hamas, on the other hand, is desperate to break away from its long and painful isolation exemplified by the Israeli-led siege on the Gaza Strip, which ironically resulted from its victory in the 2006 legislative election.
It was not Israeli and American pressure that made Abbas betray the collective wishes of a whole nation. Such pressure from Tel Aviv and Washington was real and reported widely, but must also have been expected. Moreover, Abbas could easily have circumvented it as his election decree, announced in January, was welcomed by Palestinians and praised by much of the international community.
Abbas’s unfortunate but, frankly, predictable decision was justified by the 86-year-old leader as one which was forced by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to take part in the election process. This explanation, however, is simply a fig leaf aimed at covering his fear that he will lose power. Israel’s routine obstinacy was also predictable, but since when do occupied people beg their occupiers to uphold their democratic rights? Since when have Palestinians sought permission from Israel to assert any form of political sovereignty in occupied East Jerusalem?
Indeed, the battle for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem is fought on a daily basis in the alleyways of the captive city. Jerusalemites are targeted in every facet of their existence by Israeli restrictions which make it nearly impossible for them to live a normal life, neither in the way that they build, work, study, and travel, nor even how they marry and worship. So it would be mind-boggling if Abbas had actually expected the Israeli authorities to allow Palestinians in the occupied city easy access to polling stations to exercise their democratic right, while those same authorities labour to erase any semblance of Palestinian political life, even a physical presence, in Jerusalem.
The truth is that Abbas cancelled the election because all credible public opinion polls showed that the vote later this month would have decimated Fatah’s ruling clique and ushered in a whole new political configuration, one in which his rivals within the movement, Marwan Barghouti and Nasser Al-Qudwa, would have emerged as its new leaders. If this was to happen, a whole class of Palestinian millionaires who turned the national struggle into a lucrative industry financed generously by “donor countries”, risked losing everything in favour of uncharted political territory controlled by a Palestinian prisoner, Barghouti, from his Israeli prison cell.
Worse still for Abbas, Barghouti could have gone on to become the new Palestinian president, as he was expected to compete in the presidential election scheduled for July. That would be bad for Abbas, but good for Palestinians, as Barghouti’s presidency would be crucial for Palestinian national unity and even international solidarity. A democratically-elected, imprisoned Palestinian president would be a PR disaster for Israel. Equally, it would have presented the low-profile US diplomacy under Secretary of State Antony Blinken with an unprecedented challenge: How could Washington continue to preach and promote a “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians while the latter’s president languishes in solitary confinement, as he has since 2002?
By effectively cancelling all of the Palestinian elections, not just this month’s for the legislative council, Abbas, his benefactors and supporters hope to delay a moment of reckoning within the Fatah Movement; in fact, within the Palestinian body politic as a whole. However, the decision is likely to have far more serious repercussions on Fatah and Palestinian politics than if the elections took place.
Since Abbas’s election decree earlier this year, 36 lists of candidates have registered with the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. While Islamist and socialist parties were prepared to run with unified lists, Fatah disintegrated. Apart from the official Fatah list, which is close to Abbas, two other non-official lists, “Freedom” and “Future”, planned to stand candidates. Various polls showed that the “Freedom” list, led by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Nasser Al-Qudwa, and Marwan Barghouti’s wife Fadwa, were heading for an election upset, and on track to oust Abbas and his shrinking, though influential, circle.
None of this internal Fatah upheaval is likely to go away simply because Abbas reneged on his commitment to restoring a semblance of Palestinian democracy. A whole new political class in Palestine is now defining itself through its allegiances to various lists, parties, and leaders. The mass of Fatah supporters who were mentally ready to break away from the dominance of Abbas will not relent easily simply because the aging leader has changed his mind. In fact, across Palestine, an unparalleled discussion about democracy, representation and the need to move forward beyond Abbas and his haphazard, self-serving politics is currently taking place; it is impossible to contain. For the first time in many years, the conversation is no longer confined to Hamas versus Fatah, Ramallah versus Gaza, or any other demoralising rhetorical pigeonholes. This is a major step in the right direction.
There is nothing that Abbas can say or do at this point to restore the people’s confidence in his authority, either individually or institutionally. It is arguable that he never had their confidence in the first place. By cancelling the legislative election, and those due to following to elect a new president and national council, he has crossed a red line. In doing so he has placed himself and a few others around him as enemies of the Palestinian people, their democratic aspirations, and their hope for a better future.