What’s behind long-awaited Palestinian polls?

For the first time in more than 15 years, the Palestinians are to hold elections, setting legislative polls for May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31. 

The dates were published Friday in a presidential decree by Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.

Why was this decision taken now and what are expectations surrounding the polls? 

– Why now? –

Abbas’s decree followed renewed unity talks between his secular Fatah party and its longtime rivals, the militant Islamist organisation Hamas.

After more than a decade of infighting, Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, lately found common ground in opposition to Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank. 

In September, spurred further by the shock normalisation of relations between Israel and two Arab Gulf countries, the Palestinian rivals agreed to launch presidential and legislative elections within six months.

The accords with Israel, signed first by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, then later also by Morocco and Sudan, have been condemned across the Palestinian political spectrum.

Friday’s announcement also came ahead of the inauguration next week of US President-elect Joe Biden and amid hopes that his administration will chart a different course to that of Donald Trump, a staunch supporter of Israel and its settlements in Palestinian territories.

The PA cut ties with Trump’s administration, accusing it of egregious bias towards Israel. 

– American factor? –

Now, with a new president at the door of the White House, the Palestinians feel the need to show more openness to US engagement, said Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former cabinet minister.

They also need to address criticism of their political structure, he said.

“The Europeans and the Americans have been complaining about the lack of legitimacy and the need to renew the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership,” Khatib said.

“It might encourage the US to try to promote an Israeli-Palestinian political process,” he added.

“Whether they will succeed or not depends on many other factors, including the political reality in Israel.”

Right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, will be seeking a fifth consecutive term in office in March polls. 

For both Fatah and Hamas, a goal of the Palestinian elections is to gain legitimacy, according to Khatib, who added that for cash-strapped Hamas, it is also about continued aid from Qatar.

– Abbas? Hamas? –

The elderly president did not say Friday if he would seek another term in office.

His original mandate expired in 2009 and he has since governed by decree.

In addition to holding the presidency, Abbas is also head of Fatah and president of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), recognised internationally as representing the Palestinians.

An opinion poll published last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 66 percent of respondents wanted him to resign.

The survey said that should Abbas run again, he would lose to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Khatib said no party should be able to completely crush the other in this round of legislative polls — set to be held under a new fully proportional electoral system — reducing the chances of conflict.

But “we don’t know if things are going to be smooth because it’s an awkward situation, whereby one election is happening under two different governments,” he said.

The response from the international community also remains to be seen, particularly in case of a breakthrough by Hamas, which the US and the European Union consider a terrorist organisation.

– Potential pitfalls? –

In Abbas’s decree, he said he expected polls to be held “in all governorates of Palestine, including east Jerusalem”, which was annexed by Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War but is considered occupied territory by much of the international community.

Israel bans all Palestinian Authority activity in mainly-Arab east Jerusalem, and there was no indication the Jewish state would allow a Palestinian vote within the city.

It is also unclear whether Hamas will allow Fatah to campaign unhindered in Gaza, and if Fatah will extend such freedom to Hamas in the West Bank.

Human rights organisations have repeatedly warned of the repression of critics by both sides.  

There is “plenty of scepticism” about the election plans, analyst Nour Odeh told AFP.

“People are still watching because it’s a long way from today to May 22,” she said.

“Everyone appreciates that a lot of things can happen.”