'No elections if Hamas will win'
Saleh Al-Naami explains why Fatah, Hamas and Israel all reject elections
In a radical departure from the position he has held since Hamas took over Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas now maintains that legislative and presidential elections should not be held until the West Bank and Gaza are reunited under a single leadership. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, worded this more explicitly. Holding these elections should be linked to "the end to the manifestations of the military coup" and the resumption of Abu Mazen's control over Gaza.
However, not all Fatah officials are equally adamant over the last condition. Some hold that any elections that are held should merely be the product of a consensual agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Political Committee in the Palestinian parliament, argues that elections offer Palestinians the only natural way out of the current crisis, but only if they take place "in accordance with an agreement between all Palestinian factions inclusive of Hamas". Hamas could easily obstruct any elections held without its agreement, he told Al-Ahram Weekly. Abdullah further believes that elections are the only way to resolve the standoff between Abu Mazen and the Hamas leadership.
Under the Palestinian constitution, he said, the president has the right to designate the person who forms the cabinet and the right to dissolve that government if that government does not fulfil its primary function, which is to assist the president in the performance of his duties. Otherwise put, the legitimacy of the government stems from the legitimacy of the presidency. In addition, he said, Hamas has no right to claim that it was elected on the basis of a platform that rejected Oslo, other agreements signed with Israel and the ideas it currently espouses. Just because it was supported by a majority of the Palestinian electorate several years ago does not mean that this majority supports its policies today.
However, Hamas's electoral campaign platform stated explicitly that the movement rejected the Oslo process, the agreements signed with Israel and the PA, and that it advocated the restructuring of the PLO in a manner that would guarantee the representation of all Palestinian factions in proportion to their popular support. "Elections are not the way to solve the crisis, but rather the way to further complicate matters and propel them towards further deterioration," he said. To hold elections under the current circumstances would constitute a "coup" against the results of the legislative elections in which Hamas had won an overwhelming majority. He added, "as is the case in all democratic systems, early elections are held only when all political parties and movements agree to do so, not when one party feels it has enough support from abroad to force elections down everyone else's throats." That the call for early elections began within a month of the legislative elections that brought Hamas into power proves that the people behind this call had but one aim in mind, which was to "countermand the free will of the Palestinian people".
Political science professor and columnist in the daily Palestine newspaper Walid Al-Mudallal is of a similar opinion. He maintains that holding elections as the situation currently stands in Palestine would constitute a "dangerous precedent". In an interview with the Weekly, he argued that just because one side believes that the public is now in favour of its particular political agenda is not sufficient grounds to hold early elections. "Elections are held to establish the political will of the public, not to ratify a specific political platform," he said, adding that to hold elections on any basis but rational legal grounds is to establish the very dangerous principle of rejecting the results of the ballot box. "Supposing that we held elections tomorrow and Fatah won. Hamas will have every right to refuse to abide by the results of that elections and it will be able to justify this position on the basis of the current behaviour of Abbas and the Fatah leadership."
The shift in the position of the Palestinian president and the Fatah leadership on the election question had other reasons. Abu Mazen had been, perhaps, the most instrumental person in persuading the Palestinian Central Council, in the session that was convened in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas takeover in Gaza, to bring legislative and presidential elections forward. Today, the reason that officials close to Abu Mazen cite for the decline in his enthusiasm for elections is that the Palestinian president does not want to do anything that might be regarded as formalising the separation between the West Bank and Gaza. After all, it would be impossible to hold elections in Gaza without the approval of Hamas, which insists that the elections must arise from a national dialogue with Fatah, convened without preconditions.
However, from statements issuing from Fatah leaders in connection with their appraisal of their movement's own performance it appears that Abu Mazen's shift in position stems primarily from the fear that Fatah would not be able to win the elections. Indeed, recent opinion polls gave them the warning signal. A poll appearing in Al-Quds, a Fatah mouthpiece funded by the Palestinian office of the presidency, indicated that Ismail Haniyeh would come out miles ahead of any other presidential candidate. According to the poll, if elections were held now, 51.38 per cent of the electorate would elect him, whereas only 13.37 per cent would vote for Abu Mazen, 12.62 per cent for Fatah leader Marawan Barghouti and a mere 4.99 per cent for Salam Fayyad, head of the current emergency government.
A recent article by Safyan Abu Zayda, former minister for refugee affairs, underscored Fatah's lack of self-confidence. Appearing in several Palestinian newspapers, the article claimed that this Palestinian faction was in the grips of a leadership crisis and that this, more than any other factor, would prevent it from achieving an electoral victory. Abu Zayda wryly stressed the irony that it was only by virtue of the Israeli occupation that Fatah was still in power in the West Bank.
However, there is another compelling reason why Fatah has decided to avoid elections at this time. Since Fatah officials, a large number of whom were in the security agencies, fled Gaza, Fatah no longer has any institutionalised physical presence there. In addition, Abu Mazen personally is still wavering over whether to run as a Fatah candidate in the next presidential elections. In all the press interviews he has held recently, he has refused to clarify his plans. However, sources within Fatah have indicated that the Palestinian president is studying the possibility of not nominating himself and that deliberations are currently in progress within the faction over an alternative candidate. One possibility, according to a recent leak from within Fatah, is Abu Maher Ghneim, head of the movement's organisational committee. Yet the prospect of Ghneim's candidacy is difficult to imagine, firstly because he is vehemently opposed to Oslo and secondly because he refuses to return to the West Bank as long as it is under Israeli occupation.
Apart from Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, Abu Mazen has voiced the possibility of elections within the PLO. Few, however, take this suggestion seriously. Even when the PLO was at the peak of its power, it never used the popular electoral system to select the leaderships of its various bodies. Also, practically speaking, the idea is virtually unachievable, since the PLO, theoretically at least, represents all Palestinians, whether in Palestine or in the diaspora. But even supposing that all the obstacles to organising PLO elections at home and abroad could be overcome, Palestinian researcher and writer Ibrahim Abul-Heiga told the Weekly, "the results wouldn't mean much, because Hamas, which is one of the two largest political movements in Palestine, is not represented in the PLO." In all events, Abul Heiga continued, Abu Mazen would never be able to convince the other secular parties to hold PLO elections now in light of the Hamas call to restructure the Palestinian umbrella organisation so as to guarantee that it is representative of all sectors of the Palestinian people, which by implication means that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad must also be included under this umbrella.
So PLO elections are not in the cards, and neither are general Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, the main problem being that the West Bank is still under Israeli occupation and Gaza remains effectively under Israeli siege, so that Israeli approval and cooperation would be required in order to ensure that the balloting process proceeds with any degree of smoothness. Israeli Interior Minister Avi Dichter was very clear on this point. On Friday he told Israeli army radio, "we will not approve of the elections until we can be sure that Hamas won't win."
So, as the situation stands, there appears to be a general unanimity among all parties concerned, each for their own very separate and different reasons, over the impossibility of holding elections in Palestine at this time.