Palestine, chronically in ferment, is gearing up for elections. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has announced that parliamentary and presidential polls, verily the first in 15 years, will take place later this year.
The exercise is intrinsically an effort to heal longstanding internal divisions that cannot but impinge on his governance. Theoretically, the new Parliament and presidency will be put in place by the people who are expected to score a victory in Palestine’s democratic engagement.
They, therefore, will play a pivotal role in the overall democratic construct. The announcement can be viewed in the context of efforts to unify the fractious Palestinian ranks in light of the so-called Middle East plan of the United States and the accelerated normalisation between Arab countries, notably the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel.
According to a decree issued by Mr Abbas’s office over the weekend, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31. The raging crisis has also influenced international relations, like for instance Pakistan informing the UAE that it “can’t recognise Israel until the Palestine issue is resolved”.
Peace in Palestine cannot be achieved amid unlawful demolitions. Historically, this has been a contentious issue that has affected the foreign policies of a welter of nations. A huge responsibility to restore election-time normalcy thus devolves on President Abbas before the voters turn up at the polling stations.
The Palestinians’ last parliamentary ballot in 2006 resulted in a surprise win by Hamas, widening an internal political rift that led to the group’s seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and contributed to a long delay in scheduling further elections. Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007 when the Hamas movement started controlling the enclave.
“The President instructed the election committee and all state apparatuses to launch a democratic election process in all cities of the homeland,” the decree said, referring to the occupied West Bank, Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem.
President Abbas expects polls “in all governorates of Palestine, including East Jerusalem”, which was annexed by Israel following the war in 1967, but is considered occupied territory.
Israel has banned all activity by the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem, and there is no indication yet that it will allow a Palestinian vote within Jerusalem, which it considers its “undivided capital”.
Elections will, therefore, pose a major risk for Mr Abbas’s Fatah party and also for Hamas as both faced protests in recent years over their inability to reconcile with one another, advance Palestinian aspirations for statehood or meet the basic needs of those in the territories they govern. Indeed, Fatah and Hamas have been publicly calling for elections for more than 10 years but have never been able to mend their rift.