For First Time Since 2006: Abbas Sets Date for Palestinian Authority Elections

Jack Khoury
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hands the election decree to Chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee Hanna Nasser in Ramallah in the West Bank January 15, 2021.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hands the election decree to Chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee Hanna Nasser in Ramallah in the West Bank January 15, 2021. Credit: HANDOUT/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed a presidential decree Friday night setting dates for upcoming Palestinian Authority elections for the first time since 2006.

Abbas sent the order to the head of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee, Dr. Hanna Nassar. According to the agreement, the elections for the parliament will be held on May 22 and the election for the president will be held on July 31. Abbas last announced that he would set a date for the election in 2019, but no date had been set.

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This marks the first time that Abbas has set a date for the elections since 2006, when the Palestinian Authority held its last parliamentary election, which was won by Hamas. The previous Palestinian Authority presidential election was held in 2005; Abbas has been serving in the position since his win 16 years ago, even though his term lapsed in January 2009.

The Palestinian factions agreed to hold elections due to the many political changes that transpired over the past year, including the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states, the election of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and the end of the Gulf states' three-year Qatar boycott. The dire economic crisis in the Palestinian Authority and in Gaza was also a major factor.

In past weeks, Nassar held meetings in Ramallah and Gaza with representatives of the Palestinian factions, among them Fatah and Hamas. Nasser transferred messages between Abbas and the head of Hamas' political wing, Ismail Haniyeh, some of which were handed over in a series of meetings between senior leadership in Cairo and Istanbul.  

How these elections will be held logistically, with the political, geographic and security divides between the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas, and the West Bank, which is held by Fatah, is still unclear. The matter of election transparency has also gone unaddressed.

The candidates for the Palestinian presidency are also a mystery. It is unknown whether Abbas, aged 84, will choose to run again. One potential candidate who was enjoyed broad popularity among Palestinians is Marwan Barghouti, who has been jailed in Israel for about 20 years for dispatching terrorists to carry out attacks that killed five Israeli civilians during the second intifada. Bargouti has won the majority of votes in nearly every opinion poll.   

Voting will take place in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is not yet clear whether Israel will allow voting to take place in East Jerusalem. Hamas and the leadership in Ramallah are both warning that if Israel does not allow this, there will be broad political consequences.

"Imagine a scenario where the most symbolic city, the capital city, is left out of the game. It's inconceivable," a senior Palestinian official told Haaretz. He added that in the coming weeks, the PA will be in communication with Israel on the matter. A possible solution is that the sides may reach an agreement to appoint four representatives from East Jerusalem to the legislative council. 

Abbas previously announced he would set a date for elections in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September 19. At the time, he called on the UN and international groups to monitor the process, adding that he will "attribute full responsibility to those who may attempt to prevent it from happening on the date determined."

Holding Palestinian elections in PA territory is part of the Oslo Accords between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel, and its first elections were held in 1996. Fatah Chairman Yasser Arafat won 87 percent of the vote, and his party took control of parliament. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad boycotted the elections in a show of opposition against the Oslo Accords.

In 2005, presidential elections were held once more, and Abbas won. In parliamentary elections held a year later, Hamas won by a large margin, taking 76 out of the 132 parliamentary seats. Fatah, which was then in power, only received 43 seats. Abbas accepted the results, and appointed Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister, but rifts formed within the two parties which led to violent clashes.

In June 2007, Abbas declared that the unity government had collapsed. Hamas continued to lead the Gaza Strip, and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority renewed control over Area A in the West Bank.

Since this Palestinian schism, several rounds of talks have been held between Fatah and Hamas, which have even resulted in agreements regarding elections. But these elections never materialized out of mutual lack of interest, internal pressure from the public and apathy from the international community. Israel and the United States have both preferred to leave the West Bank and Gaza politically divided.

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