Spheres of Influence - ‘To Abbas and Fatah, democracy is a tool not an institution’ - Postponement of Palestinian elections reflects the PA’s redundancy as Abbas scrambles for relevancy
Abbas’ ham-fisted attempt to reconsolidate his power in calling these snap elections has unexpectedly seen his rivals within Fatah pounce at this opportunity to unseat him. Now, he clumsily tries to undo his ‘mistake’ by postponing the elections indefinitely, using the occupation of East Jerusalem that Fatah has done little to address since their signing of the Accords as an excuse. To Abbas and Fatah, democracy was always seen as a tool and not as an institution.
Protesters in Gaza and the West Bank called for the elections to proceed as scheduled [Abbas Momani/AFP]
On January 15th, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas announced that elections would be held in 2021, which prompted a collective eye roll among denizens in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since Fatah’s overruling of the 2006 legislative elections result which saw their loss to Hamas and the subsequent formation of an intense split among Palestinians political parties, many Palestinians no longer place much value on the PA’s commitment to democracy, practically resigning to the autocracy Fatah imposed in the wake of their 2006 lose. Then, Abbas issued a decree ordering national elections to be held — May 22 for Parliament, July 31 for the presidency, and Aug. 31 for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas’ announcement surprisingly revealed some level of seriousness from the 85-year-old Fatah politician who has led the PA since 2004.
‘Pessimism remained abound’
On the surface, PA elections initially appeared to be a positive development. Many hoped that these elections will serve to break the impasse Palestinian politics has found itself in in the 21st century. Politically immobilized by an unfavorable and continuously tread upon Oslo Accords, the Fatah led PA has happily operated under this inertia which consolidates their continued political authority under the auspices of both the Israeli and US governments. This has come at the expense of the aspirations of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora, long seeking an end to Israel’s 55 year illegal occupation of the West Bank and the right of return for refugees.
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the PA has continuously stood by as illegal settlements are built in Palestinian territory and as the military occupation continuously harasses, imprisons and murders its citizens. In fact, the PA gladly coordinates with Israeli security forces in maintaining this oppressive and further deteriorating state of affairs in the Palestinian West Bank. The PA actively participates in the suppression of political opposition and dissent the Israeli government enforces, arresting Palestinian activists who question their ineptitude their alleged financial corruption. On May 2nd, activist Nizar Banat’s home was attacked by masked gunmen following comments criticizing Fatah and Abbas.
Despite the announcement of official dates for the elections, pessimism remained abound. Analysts and voters alike believed that the decision to hold elections was not made in the spirit of democracy and revitalization, but largely due to external - both international and regional - pressure threatening Fatah’s continued governance. Recent polling data from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research reveals that more than half of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have little faith in the fairness of the Palestinian electoral process, where many have cast doubt on the legitimacy and fairness of the elections in its run up.
Abbas then faced the unexpected. After years of stagnation with him at the helm, internal divisions surfaced among his party when jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Qudwa – a nephew of the party’s late founder Yasser Arafat – announced a rival slate of candidates under the “Freedom” list to run against Abbas’s ticket. Soon after, Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and then convicted in absentia of corruption, further split the party when he announced his own candidacy under the “Future” ticket. He currently resides in the United Arab Emirates and is rumored to enjoy close ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed
With these unexpected intra party developments, recent polls reveal that Abbas has slid second behind Barghouti, whose imprisonment only amplifies his long standing popularity. The assured victory which saw Abbas pragmatically call these elections no longer appeared a foregone conclusion, publicly testing his commitment to follow through with his commitment to democracy.
Palestinians’ pessimisms came to fruition when, on April 29th, Mahmoud Abbas announced the postponement of the elections on the grounds that Israel has failed to confirm if it will allow voting for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. This has been seen as a convenient crutch for Mahmoud Abbas to avoid a landslide loss in the elections, with many lamenting his unwillingness to explore alternatives for Palestinians in Jerusalem to cast their ballot such as voting through mail or at the city’s outskirts. The indefinite postponement has sparked outrage from the Palestinian public long awaiting elections, with protests breaking across the West Bank the next day.
Democracy as a Tool
Given Abbas hot and cold attitude toward the institution of democracy, the unrhetorical question is asked - what is the point of elections for a government under military occupation? Why now? Of course, the storm of international relations Palestinians are constantly subject to is always the determining force in its domestic politics. There are two recent factors which may have motivated Abbas’ decisive calling of elections, Trump’s Deal of the Century and Joe Biden’s election.
The election of Biden offered Abbas a route to reconsolidate his and Fatah’s authority in the wake of the new regional geopolitical landscape created by the Trump administration’s Deal of the Century - in essence an Oslo Accords redux. Where Arafat eventually agreed to Oslo, Abbas initially vehemently rejected the stipulations of the deal; which saw Trump deny him a seat at the negotiating table, pull 200 million in annual funds for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and go ahead with the peace plan regardless of Abbas and the PA’s say.
This brushing off of the PA by the very nations that granted them authority over the Palestinian territories in the Accords no less than 30 years ago rang alarm bells among Fatah. With their only real form of political agency and domestic authority stemming from this globally ascribed position as the international representative of the Palestinian people, Fatah could not afford to be undermined again on the international stage; lest they lose their already diminishing political respect among the electorate in the barely sovereign territories the PA governs.
While Joe Biden was quick to reinstate aid payments to the Palestinians, he has signaled that he intends to build on Trump’s vision of the conflict and region’s future with the Deal of the Century and the Abraham Accords. Not wanting to draw mockery and once again be denied a seat at the negotiating table as he had been under Trump, Abbas may have called for these elections to once again firmly reposition Fatah and the PA as the sole representative of the Palestinian people as Yasser Arafat did before him with the signing of the Oslo Accords. Collaborating with the more diplomatic Biden offers Abbas a way to save face and track back on his decision to reject the new ‘new normal’ being forced upon the region.
By winning these elections, Abbas would’ve sent a message to the Biden Administration - and indeed, Israel - that the PA are ready for a return to the “old normal”, or at least to be cooperative with this new regional wide normal the US has been carving with the Deal of the Century and the Abraham Accords - lest they lose the financial aid they rely upon once more.
Abbas’ ham-fisted attempt to reconsolidate his power in calling these snap elections has unexpectedly seen his rivals within Fatah pounce at this opportunity to unseat him. Now, he clumsily tries to undo his ‘mistake’ by using the occupation of East Jerusalem that Fatah has done little to address since their signing of the Accords as an excuse. To Abbas and Fatah, democracy was always seen as a tool and not as an institution.
Fatah have proven themselves time and time again impartial to consistently administering fair and timely democratic elections. With 68 percent of Palestinians calling for Abbas’ resignation and the Palestinian political climate developed since his announcement of the elections the most active it’s been in years, it is time for him to step down and pass over the apparatus of the PA to a transitory body or the Palestinian National Council to fairly administer the elections in interim and capitalize on this democratic desire for change on the ground.
However, that does not change the reality proven once more by this episode - to be the President of the Palestinian Authority, under the structures of the Oslo Accords and now the Deal of the Century, means to respond internationally rather than serve domestically. The shoehorning of democratic processes in this authoritarian political structure, where elections are postponed due a neighboring government’s impediments, only works to gloss it over and siphon energy away from activist efforts, conveniently essentializing the illegal occupation as a political reality.
While participating in elections albeit in this severely compromised form is important for Palestinians wishing to stake their political agency and presence defiantly on the international stage, elections to a body effectively beholden to a military occupier is not an exercise in freedom or democracy. The political machinations which engulfs these elections reflects the reality of the Palestinian Authority - that the warring factions who vey for its control are no more than opportunistic political elites rather than the people's vanguard they framed themselves as under Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian Authority functions as an oligarchic broker at best, and controlled opposition at worst. For those seeking to resolve the impasse of Palestinian politics long under the heel of Israel military occupation, these elections and the PA do not provide a solution but more of the stagnancy and deterioration of the 21st century.